While their friends were off relaxing and enjoying their share of barbeque, beer and bars over the weekend, 10 SIUC students were limited to saltines, stench and survival.
The students were vying for the “Ultimate Saluki” crown in the Recreational Sports and Services-sponsored “Ultimate Saluki Challenge” – a non-stop, three-day competition based on the CBS series “Survivor” that engaged them in a battle of athleticism, will, alliances and ultimately, survival.
The contestants were not allowed to bring any items except for the clothes on their backs and one luxury item. They were provided tents, firewood, saltine crackers and bottled water.
The challenge began Friday on Campus Beach, where two five-member tribes – the Sphinxes and the Pharaohs – set up camp on opposite sides.
Nick Holtzman, a sophomore from Danvers studying sports nutrition, stood on the Pharaohs’ side, sizing up his competition.
“They got height, but that’s it,” Holtzman said.
Chris Bigall, a junior from McHenry studying civil engineering, stood next to Holtzman with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Michelangelo doll, which he brought as his luxury item, stuffed firmly in his headband.
“He brings me luck. I think he’ll help everybody out,” Bigall said of his plush pal.
Bigall placed Michelangelo in his tent and approached the first challenge – a canoe race across Thompson Lake in which each teams had to gather large, plywood puzzle pieces in several burlap sacks. The first team to finish the puzzle on the other side of the lake won.
Pharaoh partners Holtzman and Alejandro Gonzalez, a freshman from Chicago studying journalism, jumped in the lake to retrieve their canoe while their teammates Ariel Shivers, a junior from Glenwood studying speech communication, and Shyvone Blunt, a senior from Chicago studying political science, dug for the first burlap sack.
Blunt and Shivers were still digging by the time the Sphinx tribe was halfway across the lake.
“I got a feeling it’s here, dig right here,” Blunt shouted to her teammates who ran back to join the dig.
When the Pharaohs retrieved the sack, the Sphinxes were already at the dock working on the puzzle. By the time the Pharaohs arrived at the dock with their puzzle pieces, Sphinx members were celebrating their victory.
Sphinx member Rhonda Glover, a sophomore from St. Louis studying radio-television, belted out Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”
Upon returning to the camp, the Sphinxes were handed their reward – blankets for the night.
Holtzman rationalized the loss with his Pharaoh teammates.
“It’s like football. You’d rather lose the first game than one in the middle of the season, so you know where you stand,” he said.
The Pharaohs kept Holtzman’s pep talk in mind as they approached the next challenge, a diving race for 10 sticks at the bottom of the Recreation Center pool. Victory meant immunity from elimination and several pizzas back at camp.
With the score at 9-8 in favor of the Pharaohs, Bigall dove in while Gonzalez guided him to the last stick.
“Come on Chris, beat them! Make them starve!” Shivers shouted.
The Pharaohs won and anxiously awaited their prize as they got dressed.
“Change of pace, man, from saltines to pizza,” Bigall said.
Bigall and Holtzman stood together on the poolside, watching as the Sphinxes prepared to vote off one of their own.
“They’re the fruitiest team ever,” Holtzman said. “Just accept defeat. Say, ‘I know we lost.’ Group hug? Come on.”
“They come together, but it’s kind of salty,” Bigall joked. “We talk about regular stuff.”
Holtzman agreed. “We pretty much accept the fact that we’re going to stab each other in the back eventually,” he said.
The next time Bigall and Holtzman saw the Sphinxes, they were one man short after voting off DuVale Riley, a senior from Minnesota studying cinema and photography.
On Saturday morning, the Sphinxes lost Glover after the Pharaohs’ basketball win, which Bigall clinched with a half-court shot.
With the number of team members mismatched at 5-3 in favor of the Pharaohs, the Sphinxes were allowed to pick one of the Pharaohs to compete with them for the next challenge – a race through a complex obstacle course.
Sphinx Kyle Sentel, a senior from Strasburg studying biological sciences, said the team picked Bigall because of his performance in the last challenge.
“I just said, ‘Let’s go take away one of their strongest guys,'” Sentel said.
Bigall led the Sphinxes to a victory and a reward of Harbaugh’s Caf� breakfast, giving them their first food other than crackers in almost 20 hours.
“I have pancakes every morning, so I’m good. It’s only fair that they get some food,” Holtzman said.
Bigall returned to the Pharaohs for their final team challenge, which mixed capture the flag with dodge ball. His presence, however, didn’t rejuvenate the squad as the Pharaohs lost their second challenge in a row and had to vote off Shivers.
With Shivers gone, seven challengers remained, and the competition changed from tribes to individuals.
Despite the shift to individual play, alliances remained among team members, leaving the remaining Sphinx players – Sentel, Miles Bardell, a senior from Freeport studying aviation technologies, and Nikki Rubeck, a sophomore from Crystal Lake studying aviation flight – outnumbered.
Later Saturday night, the competitors endured the first individual immunity challenge. The remaining seven stood on a plastic bubble platform to test their balance and patience. With everyone still standing after 50 minutes, players were handed 21-pound metal bars.
While Bigall stood silently with his eyes closed and head bowed during the entire challenge, Holtzman stood at his side making small talk with the other competitors. When Holtzman was handed the bar, he confidently began to curl it.
After one hour, contestants could only stand on one foot. Within seconds, each of them fell like dominos, granting Bardell immunity.
“It was that long? Felt like five minutes,” Bigall said at the end of the challenge, breaking an hour of silence.
By the next immunity challenge there were only six competitors left, with Sentel voted off to weaken the Sphinx alliance.
Bardell continued his winning streak Sunday morning, winning a foot race after he earned a head start by correctly answering SIU trivia questions. Bardell received immunity for the second time in a row.
Before the elimination vote, Holtzman said he expected a unanimous vote for Shivers because she said she no longer wanted to participate in the challenge.
Holtzman and his allies were unaware this was a ploy by the secret alliance of the former Sphinxes and Shivers to remove Holtzman. The vote was tied at three for Shivers and Holtzman.
As a tiebreaker, Shivers was forced to leave because she received a vote in a previous elimination.
With the core of his alliance still intact, Holtzman said it was up to Bigall, Gonzalez and himself to gain immunity and come out on top.
The goal was achieved when Bigall won immunity by bobbing for pig snouts out of a pool filled with lake water.
Although happy about Bigall’s victory, Holtzman said he felt disgusted after the challenge.
“I felt like I shouldn’t have done that,” he said. “It resembles the taste of an ear.”
Lacking immunity for the first time in individual competition, Bardell was voted off. Rubeck was doomed as well without her only co-conspirator, Bardell, leaving only the alliance of Gonzalez, Holtzman and Bigall.
“Now it’s game on,” said Mike Skupin, a former “Survivor” contestant who hosted the challenge. “You all have about the same strength. It’s all about will.”
For the final immunity challenge, the three contestants gathered on the Rec Center rock-climbing wall and chose a position to hold for as long as they could.
Bigall slipped first, leaving only Gonzalez and Holtzman to battle.
After 13 minutes, Gonzalez let go and lay defeated on the ground, leaving Holtzman with the final immunity.
“Really, it just came down to sheer will,” Holtzman said.
Holtzman said he felt like falling but was inspired by a shirt he wore in commemoration of a challenging race over the summer.
“That’s probably one of the most grueling things I’ve ever done, so whenever I got tired I just looked down at my shirt and realized I’ve done something worse than this before,” he said.
Immunity gave Holtzman the responsibility to eliminate one of his allies.
Bigall said he and Holtzman had discussed this situation since their alliance formed on day one.
“It was decided that if I win, I’d kick off Alex (Gonzales), and same thing with him, so there’s only one way to hold through with that. We’ll find out,” Bigall said.
As he passed Holtzman after the contest, Gonzalez attempted to convince him his chances of winning the entire challenge would be greater if he voted off Bigall.
“I have more enemies, just to let you know,” Gonzalez whispered.
The contestants gathered in the Student Center Ballroom on Sunday night for the final tribal council, where Holtzman eliminated Gonzalez.
With only two contestants remaining, it was up to the eliminated contestants to make the decision of who would win.
In a unanimous decision, Bigall was crowned the Ultimate Saluki, receiving a $500 book scholarship and a trip to St. Louis for the Missouri Valley Conference basketball championship.
“Chris played a really nice game because he never offended anybody, and he just kind of played both sides of the fence,” Skupin said. “Nick was a survival-type guy and didn’t realize until later that the personal side of it was really critical.”
Following the ceremony, Bigall was more interested in getting home than enjoying his prize.
“I really want to change my socks. That’s the number one priority,” Bigall said. “Take my socks off, change my socks and drink a beer.”
Bigall also said his Michelangelo doll was a crucial aid.
“He was there to help support me when I didn’t have any other fans with me. He’s my go-to guy,” Bigall said.
Holtzman attributed Bigall’s win to his ability to play his game while still getting along with everyone.
“He didn’t step on toes. He made sure everyone was happy,” Holtzman said.
Skupin said Holtzman’s loyalty to Bigall ended up costing him the game.
“If he would’ve picked Alex, he would’ve won, I’m sure of it,” Skupin said. “His word became more important than the prize.”
Sean McGahan can be reached at 536-3311 ext. 259 or [email protected]