Survivor star helping transform young lives through soccer
By Greg Bach
Ethan Zohn’s path to becoming a professional soccer goalkeeper began in the family’s backyard, where quick reflexes were a necessity right from the start.
“I have two older brothers and they put me in the backyard and just blasted soccer balls at my face every day, so I had to learn how to protect myself,” Zohn says with a laugh. “And therefore, I became a really good soccer goalkeeper.”
It was a position he loved once he began organized play.
And a role he thrived in.
“Goalkeepers have to direct traffic on the field and be vocal,” he says. “Teams look to the goalkeeper to be a leader so I learned the skills of leadership at a young age and I learned about managing people and managing personalities to rally everyone together to work to achieve a common goal together.”
He went on to play professionally in Zimbabwe and for the U.S. National Maccabiah squads. He also served as an assistant coach for Fairleigh Dickinson University men’s and women’s soccer teams for several years.
But he’s best known for being one of the fan-favorites on CBS’ long-running hit television show Survivor.
And for leading a life dedicated to helping others.
Back in 2001, Zohn won Survivor: Africa and used the $1 million prize to start Grassroot Soccer, an organization that uses the power of the sport to educate and inspire at-risk youth in developing countries to overcome health challenges, lead productive lives and be agents for change in their communities.
“It really moves the needle in terms of adolescent health,” he says of the work his organization is doing in more than 40 countries. “We’ve created this culture where we can use sports to deliver really important health intervention. Soccer is the world’s most popular sport and you can put a soccer ball down anywhere in the world and instantly have 25 friends. It grants you instant access to a community, it breaks down cultural stereotypes and it brings people together. We saw the value of the sport and how we could use that and create fun and interactive games around that to deliver important health interventions.”
While competing on the third season of Survivor in Kenya, Zohn had one of those life-changing experiences that sparked his dream of creating Grassroot Soccer.
“I was hanging out in the parking lot of this hospital in the middle of this village in Kenya and all these little kids came out,” he says. “I couldn’t speak with them because we didn’t speak the same language, but I had a little Hacky Sack so we started kicking it around and we’re laughing and we’re smiling and I later found out all these kids were HIV positive and that’s why they were in the parking lot of the hospital. So here I was in the middle of this cutthroat game of Survivor and I had this real-life experience.”
LIVING A LIFE OF MEANING
At 14, Zohn lost his father to cancer.
“At an early age I got a perspective on how important and precious life is,” he says.
In 2009, he was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer called CD20+ Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He underwent several stem cell treatments and chemotherapy and went into remission.
And then the cancer returned.
More treatments followed, along with another stem-cell transplant, and he’s been living cancer-free since 2012.
Even while fighting for his life, his focus on helping others never wavered.
“I live by the saying of never let a crisis go to waste,” he says. “In the middle of my cancer nightmare I went public with it to raise awareness and for the need for cancer research. Focusing on other people, even in the middle of your own nightmare, can help you heal as a human.”
LEUKEMIA & LYMPHOMA SOCIETY LOG CHALLENGE
When Zohn competed on Survivor: Winners at War this year, which united some of the most memorable and celebrated champions from the past two decades of the show, there was a brutal log challenge.
“We had to walk across sand, slippery rocks, and 200 steps up a mountain to collect a log and bring it back down,” he says. “And we had to do it 20 times, one log at a time.”
For those who know the show, competitors have access to little food and water, which make the physical challenges incredibly grueling and difficult.
On the 16th log Zohn passed out and medical staff were called in to tend to him.
As an athlete, and a cancer survivor, he refused to stay down. Even though the race was over he got up and completed those remaining trips up and down the mountain – even joined by the other competitors who had already finished.
“Here we are in the middle of this game for $2 million and the compassion and empathy spilled through,” Zohn says. “It turned out to be a beautiful moment.”
In honor of that, he has teamed with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society for the Log Challenge, a modified re-creation of the competition on Survivor. The virtual challenge takes place on Saturday, June 13, and participants are encouraged to share photos with the hashtags #BigVirtualClimb and #ClimbConquerCure.
When it comes to helping others, Ethan Zohn never rests.
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