The 40 Most Influential Survivors: Tom Westman

Tom Westman

Palau, Heroes vs. Villains

To celebrate the 40th season of Survivor, we’re counting down the 40 Most Influential Survivors to ever play the game. Because Survivor is a game, a tv show, and a rabid fandom, we’re taking all forms of influence into consideration for this list. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. Note: this list is presented in chronological order and there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.

Tom Westman is the 13th entry in this series.

In general, I don’t trust anyone’s opinion on Palau or Tom Westman if they weren’t watching as it happened. I mean, sure, everyone’s opinions and experiences are valid to themselves, but if you lead off with “I don’t like Palau because it was so predictable”, what I’m thinking is “you needed to be there”.

Because by definition, something that had never happened before cannot be predictable. As someone who was watching live as a progression of the series, it was inconceivable that first, a tribe could win every immunity challenge (surely there’ll be a swap, or an early merge?) and second, that one person could survive the post-merge by winning most of the challenges. This was not a thing that ever happened. In fact, I was pretty sure it never could happen. One of my frustrations with the show that I was already deeply invested in was that it discouraged people from being good at one of the key elements of the show. Hard to get too invested in the challenges if one of the lessons of previously existing voting patterns is “winning these things will prevent you from winning”.

You know who knew this? Tom Westman before he started playing Survivor. He knew he already had a big target on him due to being a New York firefighter post-9/11 and thus was someone no one would want to bring in front of a jury. So his plan was to hide his strength to lower his threat-level, then turn it on at the end. As they say, man makes plans and god laughs.

But I’m glad his plans didn’t work out. Because instead of seeing a guy try to be mediocre (which probably wouldn’t have fooled anyone anyway, since people on Survivor tend to assume strength among certain people even if they fail to prove it with actual results), we got to see something unprecedented. We got to see proof that you don’t need to hide your strengths in order to win.

Pictured: not hiding strength

To recap, before Tom Westman, here’s the winners of Survivor:

For those who say Tom’s win was “predictable”, tell me which of those winners established the pattern that let you believe a top challenge threat would win? Professional athlete Ethan Zohn won a grand total of one immunity challenge and was taken to the final two by Kim Johnson. Chris Daugherty won three of the final four immunities in Vanuatu, after being so previously inept in challenges that he was allowed to hang around as the least threatening member of the Fat Five. Jenna went on a winning streak after expressing a strong desire to quit. Brian Heidik sure did take it to Helen, Jan, and Clay in those final challenges tho.

Instead, through the first nine seasons of the show, we saw top challenge threats lose in the final two (Kelly Wiglesworth, Colby, Boston Rob) or get taken out well before then (Alicia Calloway, Ken Stafford, Rupert, most of All-Stars). It makes sense: in a game where you get to pick your competition, why pick the ones that can beat you? (Yeah, Colby… why?) So it was refreshing when Tom Westman came along and showed, for the first time ever, that it actually was possible to be a challenge beast AND win Survivor. Who knew?


It doesn’t even matter that there hasn’t been that many winners to follow in Tom’s footsteps (we can haggle here or there, but for my money, only Mike Holloway really counts as someone who beasted their way to a win, Tom Westman-style). What counts is that his run proved it was possible. Winning your way to victory was now a legitimate (albeit extremely difficult) option for Terry, Ozzy, Joe, and their ilk to pursue (that they never succeeded may be in part due to their inability to also replicate Tom’s less influential, but still important, assets of game savvy and emotional manipulation). And for fans, it meant that we couldn’t rule out “unless they go on an epic challenge run” as a possible path to victory for such players when sizing up contenders.

In the tenth season of the show, Tom Westman proved that the person you see crushing it in challenges to begin the season isn’t necessarily doomed. It may be the hardest way to win (well, maybe second to “being a woman who reminds people of their mother”), but it is a way to win. And since a whole lot of people who watch this show actually like challenges, that’s kind of important.

Who else made the list?

You can see each entry on the list by clicking this link.