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Survivor Winner Sarah: "I Underestimated How Hurt These People Were by Me"

Plus: Would she play again?

Liz Raftery

When Survivor: Game Changers winner Sarah Lacina walked into the final Tribal Council alongside Brad Culpepper and Troyzan Robertson, she could practically taste the million-dollar prize. But her confidence quickly waned once she experienced the vitriol from jury members she had previously voted out.

"Going in, I felt, 'Oh, this is in the bag. I played, hands down, the best game. I got this,'" Sarah told TVGuide.com Thursday. "I got there, and the mood changed pretty quickly. And I'm like, oh my gosh. You literally underestimated the damage that you did. Now it's time to try to recover."

Fortunately for Sarah, she did recover, and 10 months later, was rewarded with a winner's check in Wednesday's finale. But it wasn't as lopsided of a decision as we've seen in previous seasons, with a few castaways throwing their votes towards Brad.

Survivor reveals the theme for Season 35

TVGuide.com chatted with Sarah about her reaction to some of the jurors' comments, how revelations at Ponderosa turned some of her tribemates against her, and which big move was the most difficult for her.

Were you surprised at how harsh the jurors were about your gameplay? Some people really seemed to be holding a grudge about moves you made that are pretty standard in Survivor.
Yes. What people don't realize, too, is, some of these people just got voted out like two days ago, so their feelings are still really hurt. It's not like they've had 10 months and now they're going to decide, so they're really over it. The game is so hard on you that to have someone rebound that quickly and say, OK, I'll forgive you, and not only that, I'm gonna award you a million dollars, is asking a lot. Especially when you play with people's emotions.

So after that Tribal, how were you feeling going into the reunion show? Did you think you had the votes?
Going into the final Tribal Council ... everybody goes in there thinking that they can beat everybody. What I quickly realized when we got to Tribal Council is, oh my gosh, I underestimated how hurt these people were by me. I'm going, "Maybe I can't beat everybody." I definitely questioned it, and I've questioned it for the last 10 months. Literally until the votes were read last night, I didn't feel comfortable and confident that I was 100 percent the winner.

I was surprised at how bitter some of the jurors were. Do you have any insight as to what was happening at Ponderosa to turn those people against you?
So, Andrea talked about how they literally had these signs that have my name on them. I saw them when I got there. They would hold them up and be like "Sa-rah, Sa-rah." The person [who got voted out] would walk in and they would go, "Who do you think voted you out?" And my name wouldn't come up and they're like, "No, it was Sarah!" And they're like, "What?!" That happened with Sierra. She's like, "Wait, what?" People would figure it out there. And now they're just like, "Oh my gosh. I had no clue." I mean, look, Sierra gives me the legacy advantage. Then she quickly finds out, oh, you did that? It was you and not Brad? That's why all the repercussions came at Tribal Council for me, because they didn't realize it until they were out of the game portion.

Sarah Lacina, Survivor: Game Changers
Screen Grab, CBS

Jeff Probst ran through a number of different jury scenarios last night. If you had been eliminated at the final four, would you have voted for Brad, Tai or Troyzan?
At that point, I would have voted for Tai. Tai and I were really close. I definitely would have voted for Tai.

You both mentioned being close, but we didn't get to see much of your relationship.
So, Tai and I were together from Day 1 and we developed a really good relationship. That carried throughout the game. We just related to each other. We were each other's support system out there. And not all of that gets shown, because three days of filming gets cut down into one episode of Survivor. So, they can't show every relationship out there, but there were definitely people that were really close with me that you didn't [see] for time restraints. Yeah, Tai and I were so close.

You talked a lot about very consciously trying to change up your strategy this time around. Were there any big moves that really haunted you?
The hardest move to really say, "OK, I'm going to take control of the game" ... would be the Debbie vote-out. Because at that point, I'm completely turning on a group of six and it was the identical scenario to my first season, in Cagayan, where Kass flipped, because we were at 11 people. This was at 11 people with Debbie. And so, I remember really, really thinking hard on it. Do you make this move, or do you stay with the six and be safe, but maybe go out sixth? It was extremely hard for me to do but I'm like, "Sarah, you came out here to play differently, because the way you played the first time didn't work. So, you've got to try something different, otherwise you'll never forgive yourself." So, yeah, I would say that one was the hardest. Then, once I got the ball rolling -- OK, you can do this, and it's kind of fun to make some big moves and be in a power position -- then it just kind of fueled the fire to continue that type of game play. But the Debbie vote was really the first hard one I had to make where I'm going to start really turning on people.

Sarah Lacina wins Survivor: Game Changers

So do you have any regrets?
[Laughs] No, I have zero regrets! I just won! ... I regret how bad I hurt everybody. I don't regret the way I played. It just wasn't fun seeing how emotionally upset people were and I was the cause of that. But as Jeff said, well, don't do that, and then I don't win. So, what would you rather do?

You made some really heartfelt remarks after VarneroutedZeke and it seems like it took you longer than anyone else to get over it. But Varner told me that you were the first person to reach out to him afterwards.
I don't know if I was the first ... but definitely, we did speak. We also spoke right before his episode. When he left, I was really upset with him. He hurt Zeke really, really bad. He really hurt my friend. So, I held that against him. And then I'm like, you know what? If Zeke's forgiven him, then it's not fair that you don't. So, I wanted to reach out and let him know, "Hey, I don't agree with what happened. I realize you made a mistake. And, if Zeke's forgiven you, then I have no right to be mad at you."

He said that it meant a lot to him.
Well, good. He [was] hurt really bad. And I don't want to take anything away from Zeke, but Varner's situation was not good either. You don't wish it upon either one of them. Even though he's the one that made the mistake, you don't want to see him suffer like that.

Going back to last week's episode, what was going through your mind as Cirie played the advantage you gave her?
Oh my gosh! So, you're going to go, "You just said this about Tai," but Cirie and I were really, really close. [LaughsI We were though! Michaela, Cirie and I were really, close. What happened is, I want to bring Tai into our group, and she wants to bring Aubry in, and we don't have room for five people. A smaller core is better. So, it becomes a battle of who was going to get their way. So, my way of getting my way is, "Here, Cirie, I'll let you hang onto this advantage," and that was my bargaining tool to get Tai. I had no idea she was going to play it. I really felt betrayed when she did that, and at Tribal Council's not the time to recover from something like that. There's not enough time to sit there and convince me you weren't going to screw me over. Because now you're going to say whatever you have to say. In watching back, it's clear she wasn't. I see what she was trying to do now, but I just really think it was the wrong way to do it. Because there's no way I'm not going to be mad.

Tell me about the strategy behind stealing Tai's vote.
So, I'm really close with Tai, like I said. I go and I tell Tai, "We're going to vote Michaela." And he looks at me and he says, "I don't get you." And I'm like, "Tai, come on, we've got to think on our feet here." And then at that point, I'm like, I know I have Brad and Troyzan. So I just said, screw it. I don't want Tai messing anything up. "You just sit there, I'm taking your vote, this will be OK." I told him he'd be OK. So that's why he doesn't play his idol. He knew he'd be OK. I've taken his vote. Because I don't think he wanted to write Michaela's name down. Plus, it was happening very quickly.

Oh, so you told him ahead of time you wouldn't vote for him?
I'm pretty sure I told him. I told him Michaela, and then, once he wasn't really on board with it -- he wasn't against it, he was just really confused about it. I didn't have enough time to explain why. And I'm like, OK, then I'm just going to take Tai's vote. Because otherwise you're tipping other people off. So, he knew I wasn't voting him. So I think that's why he was OK.

We had a couple of winners return this season. Now that you've won, would you play again?
If you call me today, no. [LaughsI I need the mental break from Survivor. Believe it or not, I've thought about Survivor day and night since my first season, because you always want that redemption. And now, I really feel like I can close this chapter, but I'm definitely not opposed to writing another book of Survivor. Don't ask me to play again tomorrow, because it's going to be no. But a month from now? A year from now? The answer is more than likely yes.

Survivor Season 35 -- Heroes, Healers and Hustlers-- will premiere in the fall.

(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS.)