Burlingame native wins ‘Survivor’: Adam Klein earns $1 million for defeating 19 others on popular reality TV show

Adam Klein

A Burlingame native won $1 million for surviving 39 days on a desert island while outlasting, outwitting and outplaying 19 other contestants on one of the world’s most popular and notable reality television shows.

Adam Klein, 25, was announced the winner of “Survivor,” Wednesday, Dec. 14, during the final episode of the hit CBS program’s 33rd season filmed on the Mamanuca Islands in Fiji.

Klein, who graduated from Burlingame High School and works fighting homelessness in San Mateo County for shelter provider LifeMoves, said the grand prize victory was bittersweet.

“In terms of the game, it couldn’t have gone better,” he said. “In terms of my life, it couldn’t have gone worse.”

Klein’s mother Susie was diagnosed with lung cancer in the months leading up to him leaving to film the show and died due to complications just days after he returned from the competition. He said his mother contracting the illness was unexpected as she did not smoke, lived a healthy lifestyle and was an exercise enthusiast.

During an emotional live final episode, Klein shared tear-filled memories of his mother who, despite her deteriorating condition, continually encouraged him to pursue their shared dream of competing on the show.

“I think I set the record for most tears shed on ‘Survivor.’ The whole experience was incredibly emotional for me,” he said. “For some people this is a story on TV, but for me, this is my life.”

Despite surviving a variety of adversities during his time on the show, Klein said nothing could prepare him for discussing his mother’s memory before a massive television audience.

“I really wanted to make it more about her life than how she passed away,” he said. “It’s a lot of pressure, and it was a very emotional … It’s a strange thing to have to go on live, national TV and talk about something so deeply personal.”

Klein spent a portion of his time on the show raising awareness and money for the fight against lung cancer. In the last six months, he has raised $60,000 independently, and a fundraiser organized by Stand Up To Cancer announced on the finale raised an additional $40,000.

Should the Stand Up To Cancer fund reach $100,000 in donations by the end of the month, pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb has announced it will match the grant. With additional offers, Klein said he hopes to raise about $350,000 to fuel research seeking a cure.

“That would be a huge amount of money,” he said.

Klein flew to Los Angeles with his father and brother as he was announced the winner ahead of two other finalists, after being selected the unanimous victor by 10 other former fellow contestants.

The show’s season pitted 10 millennials, or people born between 1984 and 1997, against 10 others from Generation X, who were born between 1963 and 1982.

Over the season, contestants competed in a series of athletic and intellectual challenges to advance on the show which began airing in September, while also enduring a cyclone, cold weather as well as limited access to food or comfortable sleeping arrangements.

Despite the unfavorable conditions, Klein said his determination to win never lapsed.

“I wasn’t focused on food. I wasn’t focused on the quality of sleep I was getting. I was there to play the game and win the game for my family, and that is what I put all my energy toward. And I did it,” he said.

After watching the show, Klein said he was impressed with the ability of the production team to make it seem as if he was close to being voted off the island, because he did not feel threatened as a contestant.

“No one was predicting that I was going to win. The editors did a great job. But in reality, I was never really in danger of being targeted,” he said.

The fierce competition bred companionship among all the contestants, who Klein said he hopes to maintain a friendship with in the coming years.

“It was just an incredible group of warm-hearted people … I made some strong bonds that will last the rest of my life,” he said.

Such an ability to establish tight friendships with fellow contestants was a key component to his success on the show, said Klein.

“People go into reality television saying they are not there to make friends. That won’t work on ‘Survivor.’ You have to make friends along the way to win,” he said.

Fellow Burlingame native Mari Takahashi also appeared on this season of the show, but was eliminated in the second episode.

Klein said all the contestants have plans to visit Las Vegas together this weekend in an unofficial reunion. But considering his sizable financial reward for winning, Klein said he’ll be expected to shoulder some of the bill for the trip.

“I’ll be picking up the rooms,” he said.

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