In 1988, 17-year-old Katrina Radke was the youngest member of the U.S. swim team competing at the Olympic Games Seoul 1988, where she finished fifth in the 200-meter butterfly. Now 46, Radke has another Herculean task in her sights: surviving.
Radke is one of 18 castaways competing for the $1 million prize on season 35 of “Survivor,” which premieres Sept. 27 at 8 p.m. ET. The season is titled Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers and divides the three tribes based on their positive character traits. Radke, who currently works as a therapist and offers sports psychology counseling at WeCoach4U.com, is a member of the Heroes tribe, along with a former NFL football player, an ex-Marine, a firefighter, a lifeguard captain and an actuary.
Radke spoke to TeamUSA.org about her "Survivor" experience – dating back nearly 20 years – and how her Olympic pedigree helped her thrive on the islands of Fiji. This interview has been edited for clarity.
TeamUSA.org: Why did you decide to try out for "Survivor"?
Katrina Radke: I applied when it first came out in 1999. I was 29 years old at the time. And I didn’t hear anything, so that was the end of that. As time went on, I got married and had kids that are now 11 and 10 years old, and we watch the show as a family. We don’t watch TV, really, except for this. It’s one of maybe three shows we watch. But "Survivor" is our favorite because of the games – it’s so fascinating how they come up with them. And then of course, with my psychology background, I love the human element of it. How do people survive? How do we handle it? How do you survive energetically, mentally, physically as time goes on and your body’s getting tired and you have to still stay strong? And obviously my swimming background prepared me for a lot of that. "Survivor" kind of combines a lot of different pieces of who I am. I love seeing what’s possible with myself. That’s probably the biggest thing, testing my limits and seeing how I handle them
TeamUSA.org: That’s amazing that you tried out when the show first came out!
Radke: Yes! It’s kind of funny because I was traveling for business at the time, and I actually had this video that I made – a VHS tape back then – and I mean, I’m such a goofball. I was in Philadelphia going up the “Rocky” stairs, I was in Minnesota in the snow in a bikini, I was saying “here I am, world! I’m ready for you, Survivor!” But I guess it wasn’t meant to be for me to be on it at that time. I feel very fortunate that I applied again and that it happened so easily and quickly and I got to take part in this awesome game.
TeamUSA.org: What was the audition process like?
Radke: I sent in a video. Me and my family, we happened to be in Mexico on vacation – this was a couple years ago – and we found some coconuts, and my son was joking around about the fact that, “mom, you’ve got to apply for Survivor!” And I didn’t really want to do it, because my kids are young. But they were just so into it, my husband was so into it, so I thought I could just play the game. So I was playing around with some coconuts, doing this video. And I sent it in, and they called me back! It was kind of this feeling of knowing – a divine plan, or whatever you want to say. I knew I was going.
In late November of last year, I got called and they had me go through a whole casting week. I flew to Los Angeles and you’re basically in a hotel room, and you can’t meet the other cast people, but you kind of get a feel for who you might play with. Meanwhile you have interviews with their casting team, and from there you have a meeting with Jeff Probst. There were a couple hours of that. They had us do psychological evaluations, several of them. They do medical checks, vaccines… they basically do everything to get you ready to go. After that week, I got called a couple weeks later to kind of finalize that I was definitely going. And then it was late March when I actually left for Fiji.
TeamUSA.org: Was there anything about the experience that surprised you or that you weren’t expecting?
Radke: The biggest one, honestly, is the pre-game being so long before the game starts! We had a few days of pre-game, where you’re hanging out before the game actually starts. And it’s funny, as much as I followed "Survivor" I didn’t really know about that! I was like ‘when are we going to start, when are we going to start?!’ But they had us just relaxing into the setting. At this point we knew who we were going to be playing with, but we didn’t know who was going to be in what tribe, and we still can’t talk to each other. There are so many islands in Fiji, and this was one of the islands where they had Ponderosa, which is where they have people go post-game, when people are eliminated, and for pre-game. So we’re on this separate island and were actually sleeping in tents before the game started. There were like 30 tents out there, and 18 of us, and they had all the production assistants acting as babysitters to make sure we didn’t talk to each other. It was pretty hard! I knew to bring books but I didn’t know I was actually going to read all of my books! They take your phone, and you don’t have anything. No electronics. You literally can’t talk [to anyone]. You can’t go swimming in the pool area or the ocean. You can’t do anything! In some ways, that was very interesting before the game even started.
It’s just amazing to watch and observe what all goes into the show. There are hundreds of people who work on it, and who’ve been doing it since the beginning, and they’ve all kind of grown up together, as Jeff Probst says. They have a community they’ve created amongst the "Survivor" TV crew. It’s kind of fun to be a part of all that too. We’re kind of told, “don’t eat this fish, don’t eat that,” so there’s kind of a safety guide they give you in terms of making sure of what you can eat and not eat. They give you some safety precautions, like making sure you don’t sleep under coconut trees so they don’t hit you in the head and stuff like that. [laughs] You’re literally living out there with very few clothes, you basically get one outfit, and you can boil your clothes to clean them to make sure there are no germs. But you’re obviously in the ocean a lot, which is so beautiful and healing and awesome. You’re out there doing all your normal living in a very simple environment that’s quite amazing, actually. To be out in nature like that is just pretty powerful.
TeamUSA.org: Was it hard being away from your family and day-to-day life for so long?
Radke: I knew I was going to miss them and I knew that would be the hardest part. You can’t talk to anybody. You’re gone for 46 days, between pre-game and the game is 39 days, before you go home. You don’t talk to them at all. We made this pact that at night I’d be sending them love and they’d be sending me love. I’d left them a note for every day so they could read that. And part of the agreement was that they each had their own journal that they could write in every day, so I knew when I got home I could read it and find out what I missed, and read what they’d been doing or thinking or feeling. And it was really quite awesome because my kids are 11 and 10 but they actually did it! And my husband did too! So I really felt like I got to be part of what had happened while I was gone. It was pretty cool.
TeamUSA.org: How did you train and otherwise prepare for the show?
Radke: [My kids] made me watch videos that they pulled up on YouTube. “Mom, you have to make sure you know how to start a fire. Mom, we’re going to make sure you can run uphill a lot.” We live on a lake in Minnesota and we have a pretty big yard. In February and March, there’s snow on the ground. So I go out there in my boots and my kids are like my trainers! I’d trained before all that but it was kind of funny because they really got into it. And even just little things, like for the shelter-building, you can take bamboo and cut it and make it like a mattress spring, so we’d watch videos of that. And then of course we’d watch shows from the past just kind of as a reminder of what people do.
But this game isn’t really something you can prepare for. As an athlete, when you go train, you can say ‘I want to do X better.’ And so you can train for that, and you know it’s going to pay off because you’ve practiced it. So the funny thing about "Survivor" is that you can prepare to a certain level, and you can strategize all you want and have a plan of how you’re going to play, but in the end, you never know what twists and turns are going to come, and they keep on changing everything up. For me, I wanted to stay present as much as I could, and stay grounded and aware. If I could do that, I could do amazing things. A lot of stuff is out of your control, so just being mindful as much as you can, and taking care of yourself because you have 39 days to play the game.
TeamUSA.org: What was the dynamic of your tribe?
Radke: I think the biggest thing when you get out to be with your tribe is noticing how people, when they’re in a stressful situation, put their armor on. When people put armor on, a lot of fear comes with that. They’re protecting themselves. So when the game starts, the true person might not be showing yet. Having to honor that while connecting with them is the crucial piece, in my opinion. It’s hard for me, because I’m a very open person, so having to stay calm enough and grounded enough so that I don’t show all of myself either so I can connect with them. We really worked well together. I’m very fortunate. My tribe, the Hero tribe, is all go-getters, hard-working… we just jammed. It’s a very interesting piece. They bring together 18 contestants that all have unique backgrounds and are such amazing people too. Beyond the game, there are so many people I’d love to just get to know.
TeamUSA.org: What was the biggest challenge you faced out there?
Radke: Making decisions on whether to stay true to myself or doing things that I wouldn’t want to do and sacrifice my integrity. Being true to myself versus not being true to myself, really. Like, what are my real values? Having to subconsciously be clear on my values and either playing from that or not playing from that.
TeamUSA.org: How did your swimming background prepare you for something like this?
Radke: I was so confident in the fact that I could handle the physical side. I wasn’t worried. And I feel great about how I did on that. I mean, I’m not 20 anymore, I’m 46, so obviously I’m not in the shape I was in, but I’m still in really good shape. I don’t look so fit in terms of having big muscles or anything like that, but I can still pound out 45 pushups in 30 seconds. I’m strong. I can run. I wasn’t worried about that piece of it. And my nickname in high school was Rocky, from the “Rocky” movie series, because of how I trained. I was always known for being quite mentally tough, so I wasn’t too phased or too worried about what was going to be thrown my way. I thrive on that. I love it. I totally love the intensity, I love seeing how I handle it. It’s like “game on, let’s go!”
TeamUSA.org: What did you learn about yourself through this experience?
Radke: Being with a bunch of people that you don’t know initially and who you get connected to is a very, very powerful thing. I’ve always taken pride in being open and wanting to meet people of all different backgrounds. I feel like my swimming and my travels did that for me in many ways. I always loved connecting with other people, be it swapping pins or T-shirts or whatever it may be, and seeing that everybody had a dream. In swimming, it was going to the Olympics. With "Survivor," we all wanted to be on the show and went through an arduous interview process. It’s a big dream, being able to get on something like that and going for it, seeing what’s possible. So I think the biggest thing that comes from all of that is knowing how connected we all really can be once we let go of our perceptions of each other. So much of our lives we walk around and have our preconceived judgments of each other. And in the end, when we can drop a lot of that, we can really connect to a deeper level within each other. To me, that’s really powerful. I do believe in a higher power and that there’s a higher force that guides me, and I feel like the more you can see that in others, it can help you.
TeamUSA.org: What was your overall takeaway from "Survivor"? Was it a positive experience?
Radke: I’m definitely glad I did it. It was an amazing experience. It was definitely on my bucket list. The first thing I remember thinking during pre-game, before the game started, is, “Wow, I get to take part in this cool game, and all those people out there are actually working to create this dynamic so we can go play the game!” I realized how lucky I am to be able to take part in something that’s not an everyday experience.
For people who aren’t sure if they can dream big enough, number one, allow yourself to dream big enough, and number two, fully engage in it. You never know where your simple actions can lead you. Be willing to go for it. It’s OK to make mistakes along the way and still stand back up. That’s how we get there. If you apply and you haven’t heard anything, apply again!