Kwon, a management consultant who was the soft-spoken strategic whiz in the 13th edition of the game, bested Oscar "Ozzy" Lusth, the effortless athlete who dominated physical challenges as the game neared its end. He received his prize money at The Early Show on Monday.
"I feel like I am living a dream," Kwon told The Early Show co-anchor Julie Chen. "It hasn't sunk in yet and I hope it never does."
With the money on the line, it was a 5-4 vote.
"It's the first time I've ever felt bad that somebody didn't win," host Jeff Probst said. "It was so evenly matched."
Kwon, a 31-year-old management consultant who lives in San Mateo, Calif., was the brain with degrees from Stanford University and Yale Law School. He controlled the strategic aspect of the game, particularly after he found a hidden piece of jewelry that guaranteed him one-time immunity from being voted off the island.
"I knew it was going to be close," Kwon said. "Ozzy is a phenomenal competitor, probably the strongest competitor ever to appear on the show. I felt both of us deserved to win. I can't say either one deserved it more. I would be so happy for him if he won, but when they had the last vote to go. I had no idea what the vote would be."
Lusth, who has two years of Santa Barbara City College on his resume and works as a waiter near the surf in Venice, Calif., mastered the tropical game's challenges. He won two very different ones on the show's final two-hour telecast Sunday: winning a race to complete a complex puzzle, and showing his endurance by standing on a tiny platform for two and a half hours. He was presented with a check for $100,000 on The Early Show.
"I had a feeling that Yul had won … just a feeling I had had since early August," Lusth said. "And he deserved it — great guy."For the first time, "Survivor" brought a third contestant into the final vote, but 28-year-old Rebekah "Becky" Lee was a non-factor.
For a game that began in racial controversy, it turned into a showcase for the nation's diversity, according to Kwon.
"Survivor" producers were criticized for segregating four, four-person teams along ethnic lines at the game's start: white, black, Hispanic and Asian American. Despite the racial divides this year, the game seemed less contentious and bitter than in other seasons. Kwon said that the cast was very likeable and filled with "genuinely good-hearted people."
"I don't think there was a single person who harbored any racist attitude on the show," he said. "Obviously tensions run high during the show but everyone was able to put it behind them and coming together at the library reunion, everyone was happy to have the experience."
Kwon said earlier that he wanted to do the show to improve and expand the image of Asian-Americans and he hoped that he achieved his goal
"I don't think I was the best person to represent my community, but I had this golden opportunity in my lap," he said. "I wanted to break stereotypes. When I was growing up, I didn't see many that looked like myself that could be a role model."
The game's final four contestants included a black woman, a Mexican-born man and two Asian-Americans. The fourth was Sundra Oakley, a 31-year-old actress from Los Angeles.
Those four people made up the game's Aitu tribe, which at one point competed against the eight-member Raro tribe. Methodically, that core group of four voted all eight of the others out of the game, the final one Sunday being Adam Gentry, 28, a copying machine salesman who lives in San Diego.
Lee hoped to garner votes by convincing her former tribe members that she had mastered the social aspect of the game, in order to survive so long.
They weren't buying it, particularly after Lee and Oakley had to compete in a tie-breaking contest that required them to build and sustain a fire. After an hour failing with a flint, Probst gave them matches. Lee won because Oakley ran out of matches.
"After 35 days out here, you should both know how to make fire," Probst scolded.