This morning, I talked to Survivor Tocantins biggest character, Ben Wade, known on the show as Coach. He was by far the most entertaining and controversial player, and I was glad to finally be able to talk with him and challenge him on what we saw. He was friendly and even occasionally humble as he both defended himself and discussed his behavior.
Ben said that his “confidence perceived as arrogance was kind of my way to psyche myself up. I’m not really like that in real life and I can certainly laugh at myself,” adding that, “I don’t mind laughing at myself.” He said that it was difficult to watch others talk about him. “Watching the season and seeing people talk about me reminds me of the Chronicles of Narnia, where … [Lucy] can actually hear what other people are thinking about her, and it just totally devastates her. But we know human nature and we know people are going to talk about you, especially when prompted every day by the producers to try to milk that.”
Regarding the way the show brilliantly edited him, Ben said, “I came back thinking, ‘Okay, I played with honor and integrity, I played like a noble warrior, I had some great philosophies coming in, I played different than a lot of characters have played, and I did stay true to my word. I never went against someone I had an alliance with.” So when he watched, he said he thought, “what’s this all about?” But Ben was ultimately okay with it because “it’s probably going to be boring and I wouldn’t get a lot of air time if I would have just been portrayed as a noble warrior. Instead, I created a character that was truly larger than life. It has been tough, but I also think it’s made me a better man, as far as, I know who I am. It’s been an up and down road. It’s hurt me; I’m human,” he said, and then quoted Nietzsche.
I asked him about his claim that he “created a character,” pointing out that if he was not really himself and not authentic, that’d be contrary to his stated claim of being honest and living with integrity. Here’s what he said: “I love your questions. Your articles sometimes have a negative spin toward me, but I think you’re very smart and I like the questions you ask. This is a great question, and I’ll say this: What you saw was one side of my personality that the editors wanted to portray. As far as who I am, that’s one part of it. I am the coach, I am the person that can’t be wrong, even though in real life, of course I can admit when I’m wrong.”
Ben added that we didn’t see him “encouraging everybody” and “giving away my food and eating a minimal amount in the morning and at night so the tribe is strong.” The character was the “dragon slayer,” and he said he thought, “that stuff, let’s ham it up for the camera a little bit.” As to his meditation (I almost typed “medication”) and other mockable moments, he said that’s “based on fact but definitely enlarged.”
As to his other documented lies, Ben disputed them, of course. Addressing Jeff Probst’s claim that Coach told the capture story during casting, he said, “I apologize, Jeff Probst, but you lied, I didn’t tell that story in casting,” saying instead that he summarized it (“I was captured by indigenous people in the Amazon”), adding that Probst’s “attack on my character was a little bit chicken shit because he was just trying to stir up the pot.” Ben said it takes more than 30 minutes to tell the story and that he knows who has heard it, and when he started telling that action hero movie story to his tribemates, “I knew that I would face ridicule” but “there was something in me that I knew that I had to.”
We had only about 12 minutes, which isn’t exactly enough time to go through each disputed claim, but it’s clear to me that Ben believes everything he says is accurate. I started with his initial claim that he wanted to change the game forever by keeping the strong and getting rid of the weak, even though he sometimes did the opposite. He said he came “so close,” and he said, “I know that I had an impact on this game.” I challenged that, pointing out the way things turned out, and Ben said that will become clear during Sunday’s finale, but “we can agree to disagree on this.”
Speaking of the finale, I asked him about the player responsible for voting him out, and Ben called Stephen “a brilliant man” and said, “I respect his mind,” but also said, “I always thought Stephen was sketchy; I don’t want to say that in a negative way.” Coach said that Stephen’s vote “could have been a smart move, and it could not have been. Who’s to say?” Had he stayed, “I don’t think I would have been that much of a factor in physical challenges, because my body was broken at that point, but you never know.”
Anyway, Ben’s claim about holding the record for the longest solo kayaking expedition seems to get the most attention, especially once the editor of Canoe & Kayak magazine insisted that Ben does not hold that record. Here’s what Ben told me: The editor of “Canoe & Kayak, he was not on Paul Caffyn’s supposed 9,000 mile trip. Paul Caffyn is dead, he can’t apply for the Guinness Book of World Records. The current record, by the way, is 245 miles, I think if you guys would have done your research, you would have seen that. I am applying for that record. I didn’t take the trip to do a world record; I did it for myself to get closer to God. It was the media that sensationalized that. As far as breaking the world’s record, did I break 245 miles? Yes. Is it documented? Yes. Nobody can question that.” He added that “Paul Caffyn was a glory hog and he wanted to submit his articles to Canoe & Kayak; I didn’t do that because that’s not what my trip was about.”
There’s are the contradictions that bother me: Ben keeps repeating the claim–he did in our initial conversation–but then claims it was the media’s fault; he says he did the trip “to get closer to God” and that attention isn’t what he cares about but he’s applying for the record. Later, having apparently looked it up, he said the record was 326.28 miles, and he said, “I hope you guys will now eat your words if, in fact, it turns out to be a quote Guinness Book World Record. I never said it was a quote Guinness Book World Record, I said it was a world record. I can debate this stuff all day.”
The biggest lie he told during the show came when Coach and Debbie insisted Sierra had approached them about an alliance, even though we saw it happen the other way around. Coach told me, “I’ll quote you: It’s what we saw, it’s not necessarily the real thing.” He said that Sierra approached him a few days earlier about an alliance. Complimenting her, he said “she was absolutely brilliant, a rare moment of brilliance for Sierra when she laid out the whole game.”
But Ben also acknowledged how it looked on TV. “When I watched the show and saw that become a gray area–whether it was because of editing, or because I was referring to that conversation two days before–it disappointed me. And I was disappointed in myself. I’m not perfect; I’m human. And I was grieved by the fact that it was construed that I lied about something.” He said it was “completely blown out of proportion” and that “in my mind, I didn’t [lie] at the time, but watching the episode,” it suggested otherwise.
Ben said that being on the show and dealing with people’s reactions, never mind being fired from his job, has “been a tough road for me, but now that everything’s said and done, I’m very glad I did it. I think it’s made me a better man, and it’s allowed me to look at myself–even though it’s a negative edit, a villain edit–from other people’s eyes, and I think that’s always good … because it makes you a better person.”