Huddled under the jungle canopy on Nicaragua's Pacific coast, a burly Massachusetts fisherman, a dog trainer from the South and a former Yahoo! executive gather around a fire pit for the pep talk of their lives. In the middle of the half-circle sits legendary former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson, whose famously coiffed hair — which he admits will "get messed up sooner rather than later" — has finally met its match under the Central American heat and humidity. It's the day before Survivor: Nicaragua's first immunity challenge, and the coach is in his element, presenting his imaginary playbook to his tribe of misfits, ready to do battle with their much younger and arguably more fit competitors. Little do they know that this season of Survivor was specially designed with the older underdogs in mind.
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"Finding the old tribe is what kick-started this idea because we don't often get this many good older people," says host Jeff Probst, who's entering his 21st season of snuffing torches. "We actually have a tribe that's strong enough that they can compete and colorful enough that the audience will root for them."
The colors definitely shine brighter on the older Espada tribe (Spanish for "sword"), with ages ranging from 41 to 67. Donning a cowboy hat and boots, Wendy DeSmidt-Kohlhoff, a 48-year-old retired Army officer from Fromberg, Montana, openly admits to having some unique dietary habits. "I do like to eat roadkill!" she exclaims proudly. And Dan Lembo, a 63-year-old real-estate executive from Watermill, New York, who goes by the nickname "Mr. Connected," looks like a displaced Sopranos extra on the bug-infested beaches. "I'm smart, I'm conniving and if I didn't have an ego, I wouldn't be here," he admits in a thick Brooklyn accent. The Survivor producers realized that in order for the battle-of-the-ages twist to succeed, they needed to tweak one of the core aspects of the game: the challenges.
"It's way less physical this season, so there will be no wrestling on the beach," Probst says. "Our challenge department has come up with some inventive ideas that are fair, still take skill and still take strategy. They're going to be the kind of things you think would be fun to do." Adding to the toned-down challenges is the new Medallion of Power, which will give a tribe a distinct advantage in an immunity challenge. But once a tribe plays the Medallion, the option of power is given to the other tribe to use in the next competition.
Even with the spotlight on Espada, the younger La Flor tribe (Spanish for "the flower") contains some formidable players sprinkled into the usual batch of wannabe actors and models. Brenda Lowe, a spunky 27-year-old paddleboard company owner and ex—Miami Dolphins cheerleader, wants to "go out there and show people what a girl can do." Shannon Elkins, an arrogant 30-year-old pest control company owner from Lafayette, Louisiana, thinks his good looks and charm will proudly represent the South. ("Russell [Hantz] was the king, but he was ugly!") But the tribe makes a controversial decision regarding the Medallion of Power in the opening minutes of the game, "an early sign that the young tribe is quite cocky," Probst says. "In most cases on Survivor, I would still say that the youth probably have an advantage, but with this group, I think the older people do."
Back at the Espada camp, Johnson finishes his strategy session as the castaways place their hands on top of each other in the center of the huddle and let out a cheer of unity. Tomorrow, Johnson will move from the sidelines into the middle of the field and try to lead his team to victory, seemingly unconcerned with the generation gap he's facing. "For someone my age, I'm in as good a condition as I can get. The only thing I'm in it for is the adventure."