There were four players as Sunday's season finale of "Survivor: Panama — Exile Island" began but when the curtain came down, Aras Baskauskas, a 24-year-old yoga instructor from California, had emerged as sole Survivor.
In the end, Aras' insistence that he had played the game "honestly and with integrity" won over the members of the tribal jury. In the broadcast live from New York, "Survivor" host Jeff Probst read the final votes guaranteeing victory for Aras, and his family rushed towards him, cheering wildly.
On The Early Show Monday, Aras told co-anchor Rene Syler, "It's really exciting. It's overwhelming."
And, winning $1 million "hasn't sunk in. It's so hard to even fathom a million dollars in my mind, living with my dad and freeloading like I do. So it's an honor to be here. It's really overwhelming."
When the check was placed in his hand, he exclaimed: "I don't even know what to do! Like, where do I go with this?"
"Going into (the final) tribal council," Aras told Syler, "I had no idea how the vote was going to go. There were a lot of unknowns. How was Courtney going to vote? How was Shane going to vote? Sally and Austin were question marks. It ended up going my way. It could have easily gone the other way."
Interviewed by CBSNews.com Sunday night after his winning moment, Aras called the feeling of victory "awesome" and said he plans to use his prize money to open his own yoga studio, fund an apparel company he's starting and "just stay grounded."
But yoga, he said, is still his "passion."
"Survivor" host Jeff Probst had a little advice for Aras on his new millionaire status. "Pay your taxes!" said Probst, an obvious reference to the winner of the first "Survivor,". Hatch is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday in Providence, R.I., for failure to pay taxes on his "Survivor" winnings and other income.
Aras also has advice for future "Survivor" contestants.
"The more real you can be out there," he says, "the more successful you'll be at it."
Probst says Aras' approach to the game was simple: "Aras' strategy was not to be voted out, not to be glib. But that's really the strategy — that's how you play this game. 'How do I get it off me and on to you? Off me and on to her. Just keep it off me.' Aras kept it off him for 16 weeks."
Aras had entered the final episode — Episode 14 — in a struggle against Terry, a 46-year-old airline pilot and retired Navy fighter pilot from Connecticut; Cirie, a 35-year-old nurse from South Carolina; and Danielle, a 24-year-old sales rep from Boston.In Episode 13, there had been a tie in the vote on which of them should get kicked out of the money — a deadlock that was resolved in a fire-making challenge. Danielle won, sending Cirie — by far the most popular of Panama's Survivors — home.
As Danielle contemplated the final crunch, a force field developed between the men.
"I'm definitely caught in the middle of these two guys who have a testosterone match every day," said Danielle, talking about the intense competition between Terry and Aras.
Terry, who had dominated the individual challenges, continued that streak by winning a reward challenge that gave him a full meal and cot the night before the final challenge.
But in the final immunity challenge, Danielle won the extreme balancing act, leaving her with a tough decision to make: Who to take to the final tribal council? Aras, who she'd given a secretive nod to during the balancing challenge, or Terry, with whom she had made a pact with earlier in the season?
"I'm not going to take someone because I made a promise to them," Danielle said. "I'm going to take someone I have a better chance of beating."
Danielle chose Aras as her final competitor "because Aras and I voted off the same amount of people and I felt like people on the jury had the same amount of animosity towards us … It was a tossup ... (Aras and Terry) were the two most competitive people in the game."
Danielle's choice was a loser, but she isn't bitter.
"I'm still so proud of myself that I made it as far as I did," says Danielle. "The decision I made at the time, is what I thought was the right decision. I move — and look — forward."
Terry is also philosophical about the outcome of the adventure in Panama.
"On the social side of the game, I made a bunch of mistakes," he said, talking strategy. "I hope to bring some of that stuff I learned back home, as far as interpersonal relationships with my family."
So not a total loss after all.
Aras told Syler on Monday morning: "Terry went with the soft sell and I went with the hard sell. Looking back on it, I feel a little bad that I pressed so hard. You're out there and you do what you have to do when you're out there, and you can apologize now or later and whenever it is."
Aras admitted his competitive streak can be fierce sometimes: "I do teach yoga and I don't try to pretend like I'm a yogi, 'cause I'm not. And I'm learning. And sometimes I get competitive. Sometimes, I really wanna beat Terry, and most of the time Terry beats me. And you learn from it. That's the wonderful thing about 'Survivor' for me is that I learned a lot. I learned that a 46-year-old buck can still whoop me pretty bad. And he did.
"I think we're both really competitive. We both wanted to win. ... It ended up being so cool because we really do have a great relationship now. He's an amazing guy. He's an amazing family guy. And I'm honored to be able to be in a rivalry with Terry."
The other three members of the final four joined Aras and co-anchor Julie Chen, along with Syler, later on The Early Show Monday.
Since it was Aras' contention that he'd played the game honestly and with integrity that tipped the scales in his favor in the end, the other three were asked about his depiction of how he'd conducted himself.
Their answers seemed diplomatic.
"He played within his moral bounds, and he made choices according to the situations that were posed to him, and I think he did a fine job," Terry commented.
"I think he played a pretty loyal game. I mean, of course, he's manipulative as all heck, and that helped him get to where he is," Danielle remarked.
"I love Aras," Cirie said. "I think he's great. And I think he played the game with a whole lot of integrity. I mean, he made some moves that he absolutely had to, but no, I think Aras deserves the million dollars. I'm so happy for him. Good job, Aras."
"And," Aras insisted, "I came home and I was really proud of myself to play the way I played. I mean, it's really difficult to not tell a lie and to not do things for 39 days. I told a couple lies. I've lied more to my mom since I've been back about the fact that I didn't get to the final two than when I was out there. But you know, it's all a lesson. You make a mistake, you learn from it and you get to watch it on tape and see yourself and, hopefully, you learn a little bit."
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