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Survivor 43 has come to an end, and Pop Crave had the chance to speak with the final 5 castaways about their time on the season.

Keep reading for our full exit interview with the winner of Survivor 43, Mike Gabler!

Courtesy of CBS

Congratulations on the win! Jeff mentioned it during the after-show, but you are the second oldest winner since Bob Crowley (Survivor Gabon), which is so cool to see! How do you feel now that the news is out to the world?

I feel great. It was incredible. It was an incredible season. I loved how the producers told the story. There were so many arcs and turns and twists. I think it was a pretty entertaining season and I just really enjoyed watching every minute of it. I’m gonna watch it all again as soon as I’m done. I’m gonna watch it all. 

Something I find interesting is how underestimated you were in the game, both to viewers — in part due to the edit — and your fellow players. We even saw Cassidy and Owen’s jaws drop as Jeff was reading your votes to win. Going back to the edit, how do you feel your game was portrayed as a whole? Is there anything in particular that was left out that you wish was shown?

I think the edit was overall fair, but there were a lot of things that were left out. I mean, it’s a two to three day segment pushed into 42 minutes with 18 or however many people are out there. So, a lot of stuff gets left on the floor that has to go in there. The way the story is told is that there’s a lot of blind turns, and as Survivor fans, we enjoy pontificating on “Well, I think this is what’s going on.” So there’s a lot of room. That said, there was a lot of strategy that was left out of me that wasn’t shown. For example, on the Elie vote when I threw her name out there. That was a strategic move that got me working with Vesi and Coco members that I did not work with, which was really important. But what else wasn’t shown was James, who was very tight with Cass and Karla, who I just met at that point. He knew he was in the hot seat. He knew his name was being circulated. So since I was immune because my team had won that challenge, and I still had my immunity idol that was good for one more tribal council, he goes, “Gabler. Can I have your immunity?” And I looked him in the eye, I shook his hand, and I said, “Yes, sir. You can.” So he was going to be saved. But then at the last minute, I had to come up to him and say, “James, I can’t give it to you because I have to be able to show it to Jeanine right before tribal council, so she doesn’t play her idol on Elie.” And if you recall in the vote, when the first name was James, he just said, “Oh, shucks,” or something, and he shot me a dagger down. He’s like “Gabler…” but I said, “Trust me, it’s gonna be okay,” and then the next votes were all on Elie.

I have to say, the history you made by announcing that your winnings would be going to veterans in need was incredibly admirable and inspiring. Did you intend on donating your winnings all along?

It was. So we had talked about it, a veteran buddy of mine, or an old roommate, and my wife. We were talking about it before the show started. We said, “You know, if you somehow win, why not donate some of it or all of it to charity.” And we kind of said that tongue in cheek. But the more we said it, the more it rang true and made sense. I mean, I love my job. I’m a heart valve specialist. I work on a heart team. I love taking care of patients and I love being in service. This is an important population of people because I see this patient population. I have friends of mine that were in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. My father was in the military. Some of my uncles were in Vietnam. I had the opportunity to serve but never had the honor of serving, so it drove me throughout the game. Even on those days when I was tired, hungry, cold, hot, whatever, I thought, “I have to win this for them.” And I kept it under my hat. I’m glad that the producers kept it under their hat until the very end, too, because there was so much going on this season. I don’t think it was even necessary to do that. I’m also glad I kept it under my hat and didn’t tell any of my tribe-mates until after I won because I wanted to win on my own merit and then announce it versus… it would have been a hollow win by leveraging that.

Courtesy of CBS

During the finale you had a confessional mentioning how depleted you felt after 25 days in the game. What was it that allowed you to push through that and achieve such a feat in the fire making challenge?

Well, you know, it goes back to the grip challenge. The first five minutes of that grip challenge were the worst, and then the next 35 minutes were a breeze because I started tapping into heroes. You know, when you do something for somebody else and it’s a cause bigger than yourself, you find power in that. So when it was time for me to go make fire in front of Jeff, which is a whole situation unto itself, I could always flip the switch. And I’ll tell you, it was hungry times out there. I lost 38 pounds. I went into the game about 200 lbs and I was 162 lbs coming out of that thing.

At the final tribal council, you were questioned about your intention to remain loyal to Jesse and Cody as ride or dies to the final 3. In the event you won that final immunity necklace, what would you have done with it?

Oh, good question! Good question. So I did have a relationship, obviously, with Jesse, and we had talked. If I won, I would have brought him to the final three and then I would have made fire against Owen. I think I was underestimated. You look at me, I don’t necessarily look like… I don’t know. You look like whatever you look like, and people sometimes think of you based on your appearance. And that can be a mistake. In this instance,  I was a little more shrewd than they thought I was. Like I said, I might not be a genius, but I’m not a dummy either. And you know, if they want to underestimate me, do so at your own peril.

Part of Gabler’s answer was cut short due to poor internet connection.

Courtesy of CBS

How much of your win do you think relied on beating Jesse in the fire making challenge? We know that was something you really wanted to do in front of the jury, but do you think you still would have won if Owen were to take him out?

I believe I could have won either way. It certainly helped to make fire in a dramatic fashion and break another Survivor record right at the end, which was pretty cool. But I was prepared. I had a story. I was literally in an alliance with every single jury member at one time or another. And to be able to call on that and say, “Hey, remember when me and you did this back then? Karla, remember when we did this?” helped prove that. Part of the jury questioning that I thought was one of the coolest things… I just thought of it on the spot. I was like, “Raise your hand if you’re a ride or die,” and Cody and Jesse’s hands come up. Then I said, “Raise your hand if you’re in the well alliance.” Noelle raised her hand with that. “If you’re in the underdog alliance,” which was me Owen, and Cassidy… You know, Karla asked a question at final tribal. I don’t know if it was on TV or not last night, but she goes, “Gabler. You played a good game. I played a good game. How was your game better than mine?” I looked her square in the eyes and said, “Karla, you played a fantastic game. But when you got to 10, you had two ways to get to three. When you got to five, you had one way to get to three. When I was at 10, I had five ways to three. When I got to five, I had three ways to three. So I had a way to get there, and I think through my relationships and the social game building over the course of the game, it gave me a lot of latitude to make moves and to be in the right place at the right time. I mean, I got through the entire season without one vote against me. And then I got seven out of eight votes for the win. The only vote I was surprised at was James.

What was it about your gameplay that you think specifically earned you the win?

Being myself. I mean, I was a real person out there. I cared about everybody out there. I still do to this day. I still keep up with all of them. I mean, you’re out there on this island with all these amazing people and you go, “Okay, if you’re on Survivor, you’ve got to be interesting.” So I made a point to get to know every single person. And I went deep on every person; it was a genuine relationship. They cared about me too and I shared information about me. And, you know, I was a pretty straight shooter as much as you can be to win the game of Survivor. I mean, you can’t be… you know, Rupert was a straight shooter all the way. But that’s why Rupert (Boneham) couldn’t get past the very end. But you know, I did do a couple of things. Some parts were hard. I mean, going head to head with Jesse and making fire… that was really hard, man. It was. When you vote for people in a group and the tribe has spoken, there’s some anonymity with that whereas now it’s like, I’m doing fire against you. I’m looking you in the eyes and snuffing your game. And I love Jesse. He’s a great, great guy. I respect him, so it was hard putting him out personally, you know, because he’s a great man.

Survivor 44 premieres on March 1st at 8/7c on CBS and Paramount+.