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Sonja, the Survivor

by Margaret Cullison

She'd always wanted to do it.  Since childhood Sonja Christopher has wondered if she could survive on a desert island.  As a child the stories of Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson fascinated her.  Did she have the right stuff to endure such an adventure?  Once, as a teenager, she set out in a boat alone on the bay near her family home* in Olympia, Washington to test her survival skills.  As an adult she journeyed to a remote island in Tahiti.  But always the answer to her question eluded her.
     Guided by a father who admired the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau, Sonja's family lived as much as possible on the fruits, vegetables, livestock, and poultry raised on their ten-acre farm.  From an early age, Sonja learned to make use of the resources around her, to live simply and independently.  She began collecting quotations that inspired her to "go for it", to challenge herself and to live life to the fullest.
      By the time she reached the age of 63, Sonja had faced a number of life's serious challenges such as divorce, single motherhood, a benign brain tumor, breast cancer, and a recent relationship that ended in painful estrangement.  When she learned that CBS was seeking applicants to participate in a simulated television reality series called Survivor during which sixteen people would be left to fend for themselves on a remote South China Sea island, she hoped that her youthful fantasy might at last come true. 
     Sonja submitted a video that friends at Rossmoor, a retirement community in Walnut Creek, California where she lives, helped her make.  In the video Sonja pitched her qualifications by singing and playing the ukulele, entertainment she performs regularly for Alzheimer patients in convalescent homes.  "I wouldn't be doing it only for me...but also for the millions of other seniors out there looking for new images of aging," she explained.
      After she was chosen from more than 6,000 applicants, friends and family members began voicing concern about her health and safety.  Her son objected to her involvement in an experiment designed to force contestants to vie against one another in order to stay on the island.   Sonja began to realize that she might not like being away from her active life at home for two months or giving up her privacy by appearing on national television.  She worried that she might not be able to hold up physically.  But when she went to the telephone to cancel, she felt an overwhelming sadness.  "That told me I should go for it," she said, and so she did.
     She dove into the first challenge of getting ready.  She practiced tying knots, read survival manuals, and worked with a personal trainer who was told only that Sonja was going on a tropical expedition.  After she joined the other Survivor candidates, CBS gave them one and a half days of training that included boat and helicopter rescue procedures.  They learned about edible plants and how to make shelters out of palm fronds.  Secrecy prevailed during this time, and only when the contestants were on the boat and headed for their island were they allowed to talk with each other.  After they arrived on the island, the sixteen adventurers were divided into two tribes of eight.
      Sonja spent three days on the island.  "The experience was absolutely real, like very rugged camping."  They had no fire and little food but plenty of bugs, rats, and snakes.  She quickly learned that the wet sand got as hard as cement when she tried to sleep on it.  Sonja thinks that the games contrived by CBS to deselect the participants intruded on the real experience of trying to survive on the island.  When a tribe lost a competition, they had to vote one of their own off the island, hardly a way to build team spirit and cooperation.  Sonja's tribe lost the first game, and she was the first person to leave the island.
     She had worn sturdy leather sandals with socks on the day of that first beachside competition, while everyone else wore sneakers laced securely to their bare feet.  The sandals and socks created a drag while she was swimming and caused her to stumble once her feet could touch bottom in the water.  She was unable to regain her footing as she and her team struggled to bring a raft to shore, and they lost the race.
     Feeling responsible for the loss, she apologized to her Survivor teammates.  The psychologist, who counseled the candidates as they left the island, explained that her apology gave the team permission to eliminate her.  "I knew they were going to vote me off, and I was prepared in my mind for it," she said.
     No one wants to be the first to be sent out of the game.  We all must have childhood memories of that fear coming true.  As a championship tennis player and a successful actress in regional theater, Sonja knows well the ups and downs of competition.  This knowledge surely came to her aid the next night when her team's first tribal council was called.  Together they hiked for an hour and a half through the rainy dark jungle and were stopped twice by six-foot long poisonous snakes in their path. "You could feel the tension," she said, for not only was that first vote about to be cast, but they all knew that the scene would be broadcast on national television.
     Sonja's grace and composure as she accepted the vote against her has been widely acclaimed by the media and justifiably so.  She stood up, smiled warmly at her teammates, and said, "Go get 'em, you guys."  Later she would explain, "It was all, after all, just a game."
     Sonja says that if she had it to do over she'd dump the heavy sandals and socks and bring lighter shoes that were broken in well.  She also wouldn't hold back as much of herself as she'd done.  In her efforts to accommodate and adapt, she feels that her teammates didn't get to know enough about those survival strengths she'd been honing since childhood.  They didn't have time to weigh the true value of her "never give up" attitude. "I didn't have any illusions about going the whole way," she admits.  Although she didn't want to be the first to go, it's turned out to have some advantages. 
     As the first Survivor identified by name, Sonja has traveled from coast to coast and given countless interviews.  She also won the booby prize, as she calls it, a cash award of $2,500, which she has donated to her church to be used to start a fund that will build a new fellowship hall.  And she did show to her fellow seniors a new way of looking at life, that "we have the opportunity to choose to start anew every day, to change our thinking, to heal ourselves, and to enhance and inspire our inner spirits." 
     Thank you, Sonja!



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