Aaron Meredith was just 18 years old when the first season of “Survivor” aired on CBS and cemented the reality genre as a hallmark staple of network television. Ever since, it has been a dream of the 36-year-old Connecticut native and Warwick resident to get a chance to “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast” his fellow competitors for a shot to win $1 million and the title of Sole Survivor.
In January, after years of applying and being turned down for a chance to participate in the show, Meredith’s dream finally came true.
“I took my phone and I chucked it into the sofa. Luckily it fell in between the cracks and got wedged in there,” he said, recalling the memory of hearing he had been chosen to be one of the 20 contestants on the 39th season of Survivor (“Island of the Idols”), which airs on Wednesday, Sept. 25. “I went outside and screamed ‘Let’s [expletive] go!’ until my voice was raspy. Just complete and utter shock.”
For those who have never seen Survivor, the game plops a group of people (split into two “tribes”) into a desolate setting – in this season, the survivors return to a chain of uninhabited islands in Fiji, where several seasons have been shot – and tasks them with staying alive with minimal resources provided. But the larger aspect of the game outside physical survival relates to a political type of survival, as one person is voted out of the game by their fellow contestants every few days until just one remains.
As such, utilizing people skills to set up strategic alliances – in addition to winning physical challenges, which can grant immunity from being voted off the island – is essential to going far in the game. Contestants must also take heed not to betray too many fellow survivors or gain an overly negative reputation, as the ultimate winner is chosen by contestants who have been voted out.
While Meredith is sworn to secrecy about what transpired in Fiji and the results – the whole season was taped in a little over a month between March and April – he could vouch for the authenticity of the show’s main premise.
“Everything that was depicted TV was real. I only had the clothes on my back and you’re completely responsible for everything,” he said. “It was one of those things where you sit back and watch TV and say ‘It can’t be that hard or that cold.’ Well, at night it was freezing. You wouldn’t think a tropical island would get cold but you would be full jackhammer shivering, burning your socks as you tried to basically sleep on top of a fire because it was so cold.”
“The experience was very real and exceeded my expectations of living on a deserted island with 19 strangers,” Meredith said.
Also part of the authentic experience he didn’t think about originally was how, as being part of the show, he had to physically leave his entire life behind to participate in it.
“You have to leave for 45 days. I never really thought what that would be like for my family,” he said. “I’m going away for 45 days. I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t have the internet. Leaving my life and my wife and my son...Telling them my dream is about to be realized, however you’re not going to have a dad or a husband for 45 days. That was hard.”
Originally from Uncasville, Conn., Meredith moved to Warwick about 10 years ago to be with his wife, who is a Warwick native and a graduate of Warwick Vets High School’s class of 2003. He attended the Coast Guard Academy out of high school and now owns his own gym with a business partner, Matt Chilleri, with locations in Westerly and a new location that opened on Route 2 in Warwick in October of 2018.
“My role [at the gym] more so is to inspire people to make a change,” he said of the gym, Leanify Method Fitness. “Despite what decisions you’ve made up to this point, you can change. You can make the choice to start living a healthier life and making healthier choices.”
Meredith was thankful that his friends and family, plus his business associates, were understanding of his need to vanish for the better part of a month and a half to participate in the show’s taping. Now that he is back, he said he was excited to watch the show and, hopefully, make some people (namely, his 6-year-old son) proud.
“My mother is a huge fan. She’s going to be hosting some watch parties. My son, he plays Survivor challenges on repeat and loves watching the challenges. I can’t wait for him to watch that. For me, out there playing and knowing that I was playing for my family. I just hope that I made him proud,” he said. “You’re going to have the trolls and the haters and the lovers, but what’s important to me is knowing my son was proud of the way I played the game and that I tried my best.”
Undoubtedly, being one of the physically fittest contestants on the show will be an asset for Meredith. However, he will not be able to hold the distinction of being the only Rhode Islander on the show. Elizabeth Beisel, a competitive swimmer from South Kingstown who earned silver and bronze medals at the 2012 Summer Olympics, and Jamal Shipman, a Providence resident and an admissions counselor for K-12 students, will be joining Meredith as the other “Islanders on the island.”
Regardless of what happens and whether or not he wins the ultimate prize, simply being a part of the television phenomenon that Meredith has idolized for so long is already something he considers to be a major victory.
“There’s not too many reality shows that can say they’ve been on for 19 years,” he said. “Now that I’m a part of it and part of that family, it’s really a dream come true. I still pinch myself.”