The trash-talking 35-year-old veteran of the CBS reality series overcame wacky 52-year-old former federal agent Phillip Sheppard and 19-year-old dancer Natalie Tenerelli to take home the $1 million grand prize on Sunday’s finale of “Survivor: Redemption Island.” Mariano said he earned eight votes from the nine-person jury of dismissed contestants. “You don’t know for sure until the votes are read, but I had a pretty good feeling,” Mariano said during a phone interview following the finale. “I played my heart out. I love this game, but you’ve got to get lucky along the way, too. I know what it takes. It’s really, really difficult. I’m really, really happy things happened the way they did this time.” Mariano, who previously competed on the “Marquesas,” ”All-Stars” and “Heroes vs. Villains” seasons, dominated the Nicaragua-set 22nd edition of “Survivor,” securing his place in the final trio by winning four individual immunity challenges and calculating the demise of most of the season’s newbie castaways, including several of his own allies. “I knew from the very beginning that if I was able to get my foot in the door, and if I could get these people to at least play with me, that I would have a shot,” said Mariano, who returned to the game with “Samoa” bad boy Russell Hantz. “They didn’t realize how nervous that I was the first day out there. They held all the power, but they didn’t know that.” Mariano joined the 39-day survival contest with Hantz, his 36-year-old “Heroes vs. Villains” adversary. The pair were sent to opposing tribes of new contestants, but Hantz was swiftly dispatched by his Zapatera tribemates, while Mariano became the undisputed leader of his Ometepe tribe, forming an impenetrable six-person alliance that never wavered. This season’s twist, which sent ousted players to Redemption Island, where they competed to return to the game, was mostly moot because 21-year-old college student Andrea Boehlke and 22-year-old college student Matt Elrod, arguably Mariano’s biggest threat, were immediately voted back out of the game each time they overcame Redemption Island. “He did everything, and most importantly, he managed to blindside Matt,” said David Murphy, the 31-year-old Zapatera tribe member who became the first member of the jury. “In the process of doing that, he sent a message to his tribe that if any of you show any signs of not being loyal, you’re gonna go home. He controlled all of you. He controlled your minds.” Jeff Probst, the show’s host, said it was as “close to a perfect game as anybody’s played.” At the end of the finale, Probst revealed that the 23rd season would be strikingly similar to the 22nd edition: “Survivor: South Pacific” will feature 16 new castaways and two veteran players, and the return of Redemption Island. It premieres this fall.
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