How Stephanie Johnson of Survivor Found Perspective on "Ghost Island"

May 08, 2018

One of the more endearing parts of my personality (I hope) is my tendency to go ALL IN on reality television shows, as friends who have been forced to receive my weekly email recaps of The Bachelor and The Challenge will attest to (yes, I still watch The Challenge and am in the Bill Simmons/David Jacoby camp of considering it America's fifth professional sport).

But I'm late to the Survivor franchise, which is mildly embarrassing considering it's considered by many to be the greatest reality television competition of all time, with the greatest host of all time (Jeff Probst) behind the wheel.

When I began watching this season, I immediately noticed one contestant whose passion and positivity jumped through the screen — and when I learned she was from the Chicago area, a yogi who had quit her job in corporate finance, and a self-published author on the subject of female solo travel, well, I knew I had to talk to her.

The first thing you realize when talking to Stephanie Johnson of Survivor: Ghost Island is that everything she says has the subtle hint of an exclamation point at the end of it. That enthusiasm persists even in situations that would leave the rest of us despondent — like being randomly chosen for exile on Ghost Island, a precarious situation that Johnson knew would likely lead to her being voted off at the next tribal council. But instead of wallowing on Ghost Island, Johnson took comfort in enjoying her present and mentally resetting from the 24/7 nature of Survivor's social game.

"What I allowed myself to do for that 24 hours that I was out there was to flip out of game mind and just be in Fiji on a beach by myself," shared Johnson. "And so I climbed up on top of the rocks and I watched this sunset. I collected shells, I sat, and I had this cry fest. I just kind of allowed myself to be in the moment and experience it."

She continued, "I knew that I was going to be in trouble if we lost, so I really wanted to soak it up, and that ended up being my last sunset in Fiji was alone on Ghost Island. I didn't want to go out, but I'm glad that I was able to at least watch [the sunset] and take advantage of it  — and kind of do that alone."

The second thing is that when Johnson goes in on a big goal, she goes ALL. IN. Like quitting her job in corporate finance to immediately travel to Hawaii for a month-long yoga teacher training. Or like deciding to trek and backpack solo through nearly 50 miles of Patagonia, despite never having taken on a journey of that magnitude before. Or, like watching the first season of Survivor in 2000 and deciding it was her destiny to be on the show — and then applying for 17 years in a row until the casting department decided it was time to put her on.

Reminisced Johnson, "I was sitting in my college dorm room at Utah State University, and the show came on and it sparked a sense of wonder and adventure in me, and it was something that I didn't know existed until I saw these crazy people out on an island surviving — but for some reason that seemed so appealing to me. And so I started applying season two and I can't even tell you how many applications I have sent in over the years because we used to have to do them on VHS tapes!"

The beauty in Johnson's story comes from the fact that while she was constantly applying to Survivor, she was finding fulfillment in her life in other ways — and eventually, chasing those passions became what got her cast on season 36.

"At some point you have to just go on and live your life and keep pursuing the dream. You have to carve your own path and your own journey and your own experiences," Johnson believes.

And that life event that eventually led to her (finally) getting cast?

"Honestly, it happened because of Ironman Arizona — that's when I caught their attention. It's like I said: I needed to build up this life experience, but [the triathlon] was just my passion. I never went in to triathlon or running with the intention that it would get me on Survivor, but by doing what I loved and just following my heart and my curiosities it, [Survivor] came to me. It was just like the domino effect: one thing after the other, after the other, until it finally transpired."

And while she may not have won this season of Survivor, Johnson isn't done chasing big goals — and she gave us an exclusive on what's coming up next for her.

"I am going to enter the world of real legit ultra running, and I want to do a 100 mile race so I'm going to be planning on doing that sometime soon." Johnson confides. "After being in Patagonia out there in the mountains, it really spurred that desire to do these hundred mile endurance races that I see all my friends doing, and it seems almost like a spiritual experience. I know that sounds really weird, but I really want to tap into that mental strength that it takes to do that."

After listening to our interview, you can watch Johnson in the live reunion finale of Survivor: Ghost Island on Wednesday, May 23. And if you enjoyed listening, subscribe anywhere you get your podcasts and leave us a rating or a review on Apple Podcasts.


JAC:Welcome to #WeGotGoals, a podcast by aSweatLife.com, on which we talked to high achievers about their goals. I'm Jeana Anderson Cohen; with me, I have Kristen Geil and Cindy Kuzma.

CK:Good morning, Jeana.

KG: Morning, Jeana.

JAC: Good morning.

CK: Uh, Jeana, I know that this is kind of a big day. It's a big week. You have a pretty big announcement at aSweaLlife this week, right?

JAC:Yes. This week we announced our fifth #SweatWorkingWeek. #SweatWorking Week is like restaurant week for fitness here in Chicago. We get really excited about it. We create a schedule, we invite everybody to participate in a week where we invite them to try new things and meet new people. And this time around we'll have breakfast and learns every morning, where we're will help people set and achieve big goals. And then we'll also have big events every evening built around neighborhoods and exploring those neighborhoods through fitness. The whole week will end in a fitness festival which will be announced later this week.

CK:And when is this week of awesomeness?

JAC:The next one will be in June 4th through the 9th. The 9th will be the fitness festival. So come on down, come on down.

JAC: Now let's get to the show. Kristen, you did the interview this week and it was super exciting. I know because you are a fan of reality TV. So talk me through this.

KG:Yes, I am a reality TV junkie and this week I spoke with Stephanie Johnson who is on this current season of Survivor called Ghost Island and it's airing right now on Wednesday nights and I think there is a couple of weeks left before the finale.

JAC:So she talked to you in real time about how she ended up on the show and how she ended up on the show was a story of not quitting. So tell me how many times did she apply to be on survivor?

KG:So Stephanie told me that she watched the very first season of Survivor and applied every single season after that, once, twice a year. I think it ended up being about 17 years that she was constantly applying for this television show and she is the type of person who when she decides she wants something, she goes all in. And that's just another example of how she really sets her mind to something and will work to achieve it. But what I also thought was interesting about her persistence in applying to Survivor was that it was never the only focus of her life. Throughout it, she was finding other ways to fulfill herself, whether it was by quitting her job in corporate finance, becoming a yoga teacher and eventually training for an Ironman triathlon. And it was after she completed that Ironman that the Survivor casting production crew decided that was the special thing that made them want her on the show this time. So by fulfilling her life in other areas, she was actually, although unwittingly working towards her dream of being on Survivor.

CK: And it sounds like Stephanie has this really amazing ability to kind of take something that might be difficult or challenging and turn it into an opportunity. And she did that on the show when she was sent to Ghost Island, right? Can you talk a little bit about that?

KG: Yes. So on this season, the Ghost Island twist, was that your. At any time, you could be randomly chosen to go to this Ghost Island, which was basically exile. So Stephanie was chosen, she randomly drew the stone that would send her to Ghost Island and it's looked on as a downside because you're taken out of the politicking before a tribal council vote, so it's never an advantage to go to Ghost Island necessarily. And Stephanie also knew that she was sort of on the bottom of her tribe that particular week.

KG:So getting sent to Ghost Island was probably the nail in her coffin, but instead of getting really frustrated about how she couldn't do anything about the situation and how she was taken out of the game somewhat unfairly, she decided to turn it into a positive and she focused on the fact that she was alone on a beautiful desert island in Fiji and just really appreciate her gorgeous surroundings and sort of get her mind reset from the constant game mode when you're on a reality competition like Survivor. And I thought that was really beautiful. I thought that was a great perspective shift and it was so, it was done so consciously and so mindfully that I can see how it fits in with her personality that will come through in our interview.

CK: I thought this was a great one, and as someone who does not watch Survivor, I was actually really fascinated by it and I think I'm going to have to go back and catch up on the season now, so thanks for doing this interview Kristen, and I am excited to share it. Here's Kristen with Stephanie.

KG: Welcome to the #WeGotGoals podcast. My name is Kristen Geil and today I am here with Stephanie Johnson, who was most recently on this current season of Survivor: Ghost Island. Stephanie, how are you today?

SJ: I’m great. How are you doing?

KG: Oh, I'm good. It's actually a warm weather day in Chicago for once, so I feel like everyone just starts off their day on a better foot once the weather gets up like this.

SJ: Exactly. I feel like springtime just popped up and everybody's outside now. It's fantastic.

KG: Well, I know who you are. Obviously because I am a Survivor fan and I've been keeping up with the season, but can you give our listeners a quick introduction of just who Stephanie Johnson is?

SJ: Um, well, I was, like you said most recently on the 36th season of Survivor, Ghost Island, which was a huge dream and goal of mine since season one, episode one.

SJ:So it was an incredible experience to finally live out my dream. I've done two Ironman events, full Ironmen, and a handful of half Ironmen, I do ultra marathons, marathons, and then I'm also a yoga instructor, meditation coach, Reiki Master. I have a female triathlon clothing line. So I'm kind of all over the place. I am most recently an author, writing about travel, which is something that I am extremely passionate as well.

KG:  Yeah. It sounds like you have your hands in a little bit of everything, but I know that before you were a yoga teacher, you worked in corporate finance, which seems like the complete opposite of everything you are doing today.

SJ: Oh, it's totally the opposite. So I grew up in Boise, Idaho and you know, small town and all I ever wanted to do was move to a big city and work in a high-rise and work in finance.

SJ:And so I went to college for it. I moved out to the big city. I got my high-rise, I got my job and I did it throughout my 20s. But then I just realized that, you know, even though I had pursued that dream and made it come true that after doing it for a certain amount of years, it just wasn't my dream anymore and that it was OK that that was my dream, and it was also OK that that wasn't my dream anymore and it was just time to pursue the next thing and what it was that I wanted to do for the rest of my life and create a career. So I quit my corporate job and I went off to a Yoga Ashram in Hawaii for a month and did a complete immersion in yoga and meditation and came back and like you said, drastically different career path.

KG: And it seems like you didn't even dip your toe in the water a little bit. Like you went in all out when you decided you wanted to switch things up.

SJ: Oh yeah, it was, it was just boom, done. And I had looked into different programs that took a year, but I'm kind of an intense, passionate personality. So for me just throwing myself into five hours of meditation a day and five hours of practice and you know, we had these long, 15-hour days at the Ashram, but that just fit my personality best and it was what was relatable and how I was able to learn everything. It was definitely, you know, that immersion, passionate, intense situation catered to my learning style.

KG: And it seems like that's an aspect of your personality that makes you so well suited for endurance races and triathlons. Is that how you found triathlon or how did you get started with those?

SJ: You know, triathlon came later to me. I was always active. I did yoga, I went to the gym, but it wasn't until I was later in my 20s and then really it was when I started going through my divorce and I was leaving my religion and I needed some sort of structure in the chaos of my life and I was turning 30 and I thought, you know, running a marathon has always been on my bucket list. I have these crazy runner friends that do it all the time, so why don't I just do a marathon add it into the mix. And it ended up being perfect for me though because for four days a week I had that absolute structure and the great and amazing thing about marathon training, especially when it's your first time and you're really coming from no athletic running base, is you see the improvements week by week. You see your endurance.

SJ:You all of a sudden are running 16 miles for a training run and you couldn't run 16 minutes eight weeks ago, you know? So it was an incredible inner strength building and inner confidence building experience for me to train for that very first marathon and I got hooked after that. I loved the running community. I loved the support that I was getting, the friends that I was meeting and so that's when I got hooked is when I turned 30 and I ran that first marathon and it completely changed my perception of myself and the course of my life, to be honest.

KG: I’ve had a few marathons under my belt and I can totally relate to what you're saying about how training for that first one, you get addicted to adding a little bit of mileage each week and you're like, I've never done this distance before. I've never run this far. And each week it gets a little bit more exciting to push your limits and see what your body can do.

SJ: Yeah, it's. It is. It's a, it's a little bit like you said, kind of like an addiction just to see like what else can I do? What am I capable of? If I can do this, can I do that? And I mean, we definitely all have our limitations, but it's very fascinating seeing that that strength grow and build and like I said, it's just such a confidence booster. And so that's how I got into the running portion of triathlon. I, you know, I was doing the running portion before I even dabbled into triathlon.

KG: Well, let's go back. Let's back up a little bit because you've already described so many interesting and varied accomplishments. I'm really interested to hear your answer to the first big question we ask everyone who comes on the podcast and that is, what is a big goal you've achieved in the past, why was it important to you and how did you get to achieving that goal?

SJ: You know, it's, it's, I have, I have three that I could, I could say.

KG: Let's go for it, why not?

SJ: Well then we'll just, we'll just go for it. Like you said. Okay. So the first would be definitely Ironman. And it did come to me later on in life as a goal. You know, it was never a life goal. I thought that people were like crazy who did that type of thing. I didn't know how to swim laps at all, but once I started swimming and I took that chance on myself and I had. I met a friend who was, he was 86 and we just bonded and he, he became my swim coach and we, we just, we had so much fun training that as soon as I caught onto swimming, I knew I wanted to go the full way and it was a huge goal and a huge dream to eventually do a full Ironman even though I had no idea how I was going to physically do 140 miles in a day.

SJ:140.6. I guess you gotta add in the .6. Exactly. But it became really important to me because it was like I, like I mentioned with the marathon, it was something that I focused on every single day and it brought a sense of community to me. It brought so many new friends and I loved being able to see what I was actually capable of because that to me was the impossible. It was completely impossible in my head, before I made up my mind that I was going to do it, and even sitting there at the start line of Ironman Arizona in 2015, I thought to myself, this is freaking impossible. What am I doing? I need to run off and go to Denny's and get some pancakes instead of starting this long day that I'm about to have. Like, what am I doing? So until you actually cross that line, it does seem impossible, but you know, it became hugely important to me just on a personal level to, to accomplish this and to kind of prove to myself that I was capable of this and it was important to me to show my children that you can do anything you set your mind to.

SJ:You know, I always preach that on social media, dream big. You can do anything. But if I'm not walking the walk, I should not be talking the talk because that's another huge thing with me is I like to be authentic and vulnerable and very real. And I feel like if I'm telling my kids, you know, you can do this, you can do anything. I need to be able to back that up with proof, so on a personal level it was important to me, but then as a mother it was extremely important to me as well.

KG: Well, that's enough for one goal. That was just the first one. What other, what were the two other ones you mentioned?

SJ: You know, definitely Survivor, like getting onto Survivor was, like I said, a 17 year goal for me, I knew I wanted to be on the second I started watching that show and I remember exactly where I was when I started watching it.

SJ:I was sitting in my college dorm room at Utah State University and the show came on and it was, it sparked a sense of wonder and adventure in me and it was something that I didn't know existed until I saw these crazy people out on an island surviving, but for some reason that seemed so appealing to me. And so I started applying season 2 and I can't even tell you how many applications I have sent in over the years because we used to have to do them on VHS tapes. Like, oh my gosh, you know, like you even like, remember, VHS tapes. It was crazy. It was crazy hard to actually get a video into them and you had to mail it in. And so I sent those in. I went to open casting calls, I, you know, and then finally, you know, now they do it on the Internet. So I would have been able to just send things in.

SJ:So when I got the call that it was just, it was mind blowing to me that all that persistence finally paid off and it's just, it I can't describe like you know it for 17 years, you think about something most every week because it's on, you know, nine months out of the year and then it finally happens and you realize that, you know, you have this huge dream that you want and you're doing everything you can. But at some point you have to just go on and live your life and keep, keep pursuing the dream. But you have to carve your own, you know, your own path and your own journey and your own experiences. Because in the end, when I look back, you know, the woman that I am today is not the, obviously not the same person I was 15 years ago and the life experience that I have now and who I am now as the person that needed to be on the show and meet the people that I met and so it's just timing is everything, but 17 years is a really long time.

KG:It makes me wonder what the casting crew was thinking the entire time we're going to if they just flipped through the applications every year. And were like, Oh, here's Stephanie again. Still at it. And then I wonder what made them decide now was the right time to cast you?

SJ: Yeah, it's crazy. And I, and you know it honestly, it happened because of Ironman Arizona, you know, that's when I caught their attention. And so it is, you know, if you look at like the series of events in a life as you know, almost like dominoes falling one after the next. It's like I said, I needed to build up this life experience, but it was just my passion. I never went in to triathlon or running with the intention that it would get me on Survivor, but by doing what I loved and just following my heart and my curiosities it, you know, it came to me, so it was just, it's like the domino effect, one thing after the other, after the other until it finally transpired.

SJ:But yeah, it was kind of a crazy, crazy scenario how it all happened.

KG: Yeah, that's amazing. It's wild how those things work out, but it seems to show that it was meant to be. And while you were fulfilling your own passions, it was just leading you the direction that you are supposed to be going all along.

SJ: Yes, exactly. Exactly. Life has a funny way of doing that.

KG: Yeah, it sure does. Well, I want to come back to your Survivor journey, but let's go ahead and knock that third big goal out because I'm super curious to hear what this one is going to be.

SJ: Yeah. So the third one is writing and writing. I've always loved to write and I always had this spark of curiosity of what it would be like to be a writer, but I'm not classically trained. I never went to college for it.

SJ:It was just something that I, I did and I, you know, I have a blog and everything and I, I write articles and do different things, but I always wanted to write a book on something, but he just never knew what it was. Like what was my thing? And I vividly remember, this happened after I was voted out of survivor and I was talking to one of the other contestants and, you know, I'm like, Geez, like I feel like I just reached my big goal. It's time to set a new one now, you know, because I'm very goal oriented person and it's like I needed something else. And I said, I've been talking about this for years, so I want to become an author. And so when I got home I realized that my thing was solo traveling as a, as a woman.

SJ:And I wanted to write about my experience with that. And you know, I tried the publishing route, I tried to go through, you know, different publishers and editors and it's just a crazy process. So I finally said, look, we live in a day and age when you can literally do anything yourself. Musicians can get their music out on Spotify and artists can get their work out on Instagram. And I'm like, why can't I publish a book? And so I researched and I researched and you know, all the backend work that goes into figuring out how do you write, edit and publish a book? And I figured it all out, you know, with it definitely took months and months of research. But I finally did it. And so publishing my first book was a huge goal for me that I reached. And it's only the beginning—I feel that it’s something that I created and it's my, it's like my little baby and now I'm going to fuel that and add onto that and just continue on with it because I really enjoy creating these books, especially on travel. So yeah. So that was a, that was the other one, is becoming an author, a published author.

KG:Congratulations on that is someone who makes a living cranking out thousand word blog posts several times a day. The idea of writing a full book is daunting to say the least. So it's amazing that you were able to take that dream and figure out a path to make it happen yourself.

SJ: Yeah. Well thank you.

KG: Let's go back to your time on Survivor. When the show started, I'm assuming that your goal like everyone else to was to win, and to outlast everybody else.

SJ: Yes.

KG: But what specific strategies were you trying to go about making that happen? What was your game plan?

SJ:You know, you definitely go in with the intention to win. I wanted to enjoy the experience because I had wanted this for so long, but you also like just with my personality, I had such a burning passion to win and you start the game and you look around and immediately I wanted to create strong social bonds with people. I knew that my social skills were going to be what would get me the furthest. I actually didn't tell anybody out there that I did triathlon or that I was a runner. I didn't want them to know my endurance and that I had that mental strength to really push through. So I told them, you know, I did yoga and I lift some weights and stuff, but he really kept a lot of that part hidden. So I knew that I had to rely on a lot of my social strength and building relationships and just being able to relate to people and I did. I mean I created really great bonds with a lot of people out there, very personal and you know, I had a lot of very intimate moments with people. And so that was initially my strategy going in was to create those bonds.

KG:And you said it yourself. The social aspect of the game is so big in Survivor. What did you take away from your time on the show in terms of learning how to get along with a group of strangers, especially when everyone's trying to accomplish the same thing?

SJ:Oh man, there's so much that I took away. It's, it's hard because you're in a scenario where you are, you know, the first night you all are sleeping in your bra and underwear and in bikini's next to each other for body heat. So you become really, really raw and close with these people very fast and there's like a very intimate bond that you make with these people very quickly and it's very deep and that part is very real. But yet you're in a game setting where it's not real life. And so you have to navigate between what conversations are real and what's not real. And you know, I'm definitely a lover, and not a hater, fighter. So it was hard for me, you know, a couple of the votes to, to vote people out. But you, you realize also you have to flip your mind back that you're in a game for you know a million dollars and if you want to stay, you have to. You have to be able to lie, cheat, and steal to get to the end. Yet you really do create real bonds and feelings towards these people because like I said, you have just this intimate, raw like down to like primal, like eating and, and warmth and sleeping with each other really quick. So I think that it taught me how quickly you can bond with people that you have nothing in common with, nothing, and from all different walks of life, you know, when you're stuck in a very primal situation basically. So it's been interesting taking those relationships also out of the game and how deep those relationships are, friendships that we've made are based on based on that, that connection that you make those first few days.

KG:Yeah. It seems like it's something that you guys have in common because obviously so few of the population is able to experience that. So it's a really strong bonding moment between all of you.

SJ:Yes, definitely. And that human connection is, it's very real and you know, you're, you're taken away from your phones and you're having real conversations with people eye to eye where you're, you have no distractions, of you know your phone going off or taking care of the kids or you have to do go, go to work or do this or that and so it makes you realize how much technology plays into our relationships and when you come out of the game, I bet it's like I crave more of that, that real relationship with people, you know, I don't want to have an only texting relationship with somebody because I know what it feels like to sit down with somebody without a cell phone and have a really deep conversation and laugh and cry or whatever you end up doing, but without any distractions. And so it does make you want to discover more depth in relationships when you get out of the game or at least it has for me.

KG:And that's interesting too considering your scenes and theme was Ghost Island, which plays off isolation from the community and you made a trip to Ghost Island right before you were voted off. What was that isolation like for you and how were you able to navigate it by yourself?

SJ:So you know, I do a lot of solo travel so I'm very used to being alone and I thought, no problem, I've got this, like and I was very excited to go to Ghost Island because you get to play for an advantage. And at the time where I was at I did not know that you didn't get an advantage because all I knew from Jacob and Kellen is that you get to at least play for an advantage. Jacob did and got, you know, the legacy advantage and Kellen just decided not to because she didn't want a chance to lose her vote. So when I got there and I got that I couldn't play a game. That is, that was this sinking feeling for me because I knew I was already in trouble and now I'm isolated and now I can’t, I don't have any advantage and now I'm stuck on a freaking island by myself.

SJ:And so I just, I had a feeling like I was in bad shape if we lost the next immunity challenge. So what I allowed myself to do is for that 24 hours that I was out there, whatever it was, is flip out of game mind and just be in Fiji on a beach by myself. And so I climbed up on top of the rocks and I watched the sunset. I collected shells, you know, I definitely like, you see me on the show. I cry all that. I, I'm like the resident crier of the group. Like I sat and I had like this cry fest. I miss my kids, but I like was collecting like I said shells and stones and you know, I sat in the water and just tried to like bathe because you know, that's how we, that's how we wash out there and it's just in the ocean.

SJ:And the one advantage that we had out there is this massive thing of rice. So I ate until I almost threw up like this rice and yeah, so I just kind of allowed myself to be in the moment and experience it. And I, you know, I did go through my mind any scenario that I could come up with for back at camp when I came back, but I knew that I was, I knew that I was going to be in trouble if we lost, so I really wanted to soak up and that ended up being my last sunset in Fiji was alone on Ghost Island. Well last sunset on the show, last sunset on the show was on Ghost Island. So I really, I really do feel like I didn't want to go out, but I'm glad that I was able to at least watch it and take advantage of it and kind of do that alone.

KG:That's such a beautiful sentiment because I can see how being in such an uncomfortable environment would really magnify your feelings. Like the highest would feel really high and the lows would feel really low. So it's really impressive that you were able to tap into some mindfulness to