Survivor: Palau is considered a classic season of the show, thanks in large part to the gameplay of its third-place finisher, Ian Rosenberger.
The tenth season of Survivor, Survivor: Palau, is considered by many fans and commentators to be one of the early era’s best seasons, and third-place finisher Ian Rosenberger is a big reason why. Season 10 was filmed near the city of Koror in the Micronesian nation of Palau. Due to Palau’s storied history and the major battles that took place there during the Pacific theater of World War II, the season’s theme was heavily influenced by military iconography. Many of the challenges played into the location’s history, giving the season a unique identity among Survivor‘s many iterations.
Despite the war-centric theme, however, the competition between the starting tribes on season 10 wasn’t exactly fierce. The Koror tribe completely decimated their Ulong counterparts in what stands as the most dominant tribe performance in Survivor history. Koror won every immunity challenge, forcing Ulong to whittle away their numbers until only one member, Stephenie LaGrossa, remained.
Ian Rosenberger was one of the key components of Koror’s success. At the time, Ian was a 23-year-old dolphin trainer, and his 6’8″ frame and athleticism greatly benefited Koror in immunity challenges. Ian’s greatest contribution to the show, though, wasn’t his physical performance but rather how he maneuvered in the game. Ian’s alliance with eventual winner Tom Westman was the guiding force behind nearly every post-merge boot. The pair was so in control that it seemed likely from very early on in the season that one of them would be the ultimate winner. However, Ian’s youthful naivete and good-heartedness, at war with his keen strategic instinct, led to an incredibly emotional and compelling conclusion to what could’ve been a rote and predictable season.
Ian realized that Tom was the biggest threat to win and began mobilizing to eventually eliminate Tom, which would have given Ian a remarkably easy path to the victory. Unfortunately, Ian made a series of blunders that keyed Tom in on the potential betrayal, leading Tom to chastise Ian and causing a major rift between the close allies. In the final immunity challenge, the legendary “Bob-Bob-Buoy” standoff, Ian and Tom went to war against each other. They each clung to a pole on a buoy for twelve hours, a Survivor record, until Ian, seeking to make amends with Tom, agreed to step down on the condition that Tom take Katie Gallagher, who also had a falling out with Ian, to the final two instead of Ian. Tom obliged, and the rest is history.
What made Ian such a special Survivor player was the fascinating dynamic that his personality and sensibilities brought to the show. Ian wasn’t a perfect player, and that’s what made him so compelling. In early era Survivor, morality and ethics were much more at the forefront of players’ strategic decisions than they are in the current era, in which blindsides are expected. The machinations of Survivor inherently reward self-interest and ruthlessness, but a player like Ian, who wasn’t a fan of the show before participating, found himself in a perfect storm of conflicting values and a lack of life experience. An older player might not have been as easily manipulated into feeling guilty for a strategic move as Ian was, but Ian’s desire for respect and forgiveness from his friends outweighed his desire to win the game. That conflict ultimately led Survivor: Palau to being a far more captivating story than its lopsided boot order would suggest and is the reason why the final immunity challenge remains one of Survivor‘s most iconic moments.
Survivor season 42 premieres Wednesday, March 9 at 8pm EST on CBS.
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