The Top 20 Survivors of All Time #16: Colby Donaldson

It’s nice when one of Survivor’s biggest names is also a great player, and that’s the case with Colby Donaldson. His appearance on S2: The Australian Outback marked him as almost certainly the most popular contestant to that time, and definitely one of the most popular ever. Known for his good looks and Texas charm, as well as his performance in challenges, Colby is a three-time player (the first included on this list) who, despite some arguably lackluster games, deserves a spot in the top 20 for his stellar game in S2: The Australian Outback.

What is Colby’s Survivor story?

As all three-time players do, Colby has a great three season story arc that sees him go from Superman in his prime to, well, “Superman in a fat suit.” In S2: The Australian Outback, Colby was indeed Superman, setting a precedent for Survivor challenge dominance that would go uncontested for several years. He was especially popular with the show’s female viewers who found him attractive, and not only physically. Colby was a “man’s man” who demonstrated leadership and confidence while expecting hard work and camaraderie from his tribemates. He was known for his complicated, flirty relationship with Jerri Manthey (which would only get better and better as they continued to play together). However, after she drew a line in the sand on the Okagor tribe, Colby decided to switch and vote with Tina and Keith. The three of them would run the show for the rest of the game, winning the tiebreaker at the merge and controlling the votes the whole way through. What Colby is really remembered for though, in terms of the game, is his decision to take Tina to the finals with him instead of Keith after winning the final immunity challenge. The move was purely a moral decision, as Colby felt Tina was more deserving of the spot. He even admitted in a confessional beforehand that he didn’t think he was likely to win against Tina but that it was worth it to him for her to win if she was truly the one who deserved it. In fact, Tina would go on to win against Colby 4-3, in one of my personal favorite Survivor moments ever. Tina’s reaction was much more subdued and humble, as she buried her face in her hands. But Colby, proud as ever of himself and the decision he made to take Tina, jumps out of his seat and lets loose a joyful, genuine cheer. He picks her up and hugs her. The selflessness of the move cemented him as one of the show’s most heroic to ever play.

His return in All-Stars was thus disappointing to many, but like so many others in that season he was targeted in no small part because of his reputation. With the merge looming, the other All-Stars felt as though Colby was too much of a threat to repeat his challenge dominance for which he was known. He was also close enough to winning his season that he was lumped in with the other winners, who were being systematically targeted the whole season through. Jerri, his old rival from Australia, was also eager to get revenge on him after their last game together. This is not to say that Colby would have done fantastic in All-Stars, but the odds were certainly stacked against him from the get-go, which certainly was a factor in his lack of a solid alliance.

Colby’s Survivor story arc came full circle in Heroes vs. Villains, where he was fittingly cast on the Heroes tribe. He quickly found himself on the outs, as he aligned with Tom and Stephenie. Like Colby, they had few connections from previous seasons, and could not work their way into a majority. However, Colby did not end up being voted out, as he was saved when the Heroes decided to blindside Cirie and target Tom before him. In fact, Colby would end up being the last Hero remaining in the game as the Heroes were systematically eliminated post-merge by the Villains tribe. He was targeted last among the Heroes because he was performing poorly in challenges, not playing particularly strategically, and acting predictably, making him less threatening to the Heroes tribe. Despite lasting 37 days, it was almost certainly his worst performance of his three seasons. What was interesting about it, though, was that it did not mar his reputation in the same way that his All-Stars performance had. His old school style of Survivor was a refreshing addition to the Heroes vs. Villains season, especially when he made amends with Jerri and provided viewers with one of the cutest Survivor moments ever. When he discussed at the reunion that he didn’t have as much fun in Heroes vs. Villains because he couldn’t go exploring, it was such a great reminder that Survivor should be an experience for those involved, not just a competition. And although his game was not great in Heroes vs. Villains, Colby continued to be charming and entertaining as ever.

What are Colby’s skills and accolades?

Whenever there’s a conversation involving Colby, his challenge dominance in Australia will be discussed. He won 7 of the last 10 challenges in that season, the most individual wins ever in a single season, including all 5 of the last immunity challenges in a row. Although he did not perform as well individually in Heroes vs. Villains, it would be silly to say Colby isn’t one of the prolific challenge competitors in Survivor.

Another asset of Colby’s is that he is just a likable guy. This is not quite a skill, rather an attribute; nevertheless it is one that makes him a better player, in the same way an athlete benefits from being tall. As most of Colby’s best qualities are, this is most visible in S2: The Australian Outback, when he received 3 jury votes and had friendly relationships with just about everyone but Jerri, and even that was for good reason. It is more a testament to Tina than a detriment to Colby that he didn’t win in that final tribal (and as we know, he could have had he decided to). In All-Stars it was his threatening reputation that was his undoing, and in Heroes vs. Villains, although he was not in control of his own fate during the game, he was still viewed as a huge jury threat when he was voted off as the last Hero.

Colby is not inept strategically, either, although in his appearances it has certainly been his least impressive area. In S2, Colby maneuvered the swing vote position well on his own tribe, when he aligned with Tina and Keith. This was successful in keeping himself safe in the pre-merge, as well as setting himself up in the majority of his tribe after they took control of the game post-merge. In All-Stars, he did a good job of shifting the target onto Richard before it inevitably fell on him. His best strategic move, however, was in S2 when he exploited the old tiebreaker rule that ties would be broken by past votes. He orchestrated a move where he faked past votes, in order to draw the Kucha votes onto him so that Ogakor would win the tiebreaker at the merge. It worked to perfection and put Colby and Tina in the driver’s seat for the remainder of the game. Although Colby performed poorly strategically in his later appearances, his strategic game in S2 demonstrates that without a pre-existing reputation, he possesses the ability to think outside the box and create relationships and alliances.

What are Colby’s weaknesses and criticisms?

Colby is not without his weaknesses, although it is hard to examine them closely because they stem from his reputation and connections more than his actual game play. In All-Stars and Heroes vs. Villains, he found himself on the outside for reasons that were outside of his control. This is not to say that other players haven’t overcome similar obstacles in the past, but Colby’s reputation after S2 was profound in a way that few other contestants’ have been. Especially in All-Stars, when the winners and threats were targeted first across the board, Colby didn’t stand a chance. Thus, Heroes vs. Villains was Colby’s worst performance, despite lasting to day 37.

Upon arrival at the Heroes camp, Colby immediately found himself on the outside. Cirie, James, and Amanda had all played together and were working together from the get-go. They roped in a few others as well, leaving Colby, Tom and Stephenie on the outside. In addition to his lack of connections, Colby (and similarly Tom) were targeted for their reputations. The combination of having no pre-game alliance and a huge target on his back made it difficult for Colby to get on the inside, although he and Tom did what they could to swing J.T.

Colby’s ride to day 37, however, was not very proactive. He was spared several times pre-merge when the Heroes started to turn on each other to blindside people they viewed as even bigger threats (Cirie in particular). After the merge, when the Villains took control, Colby was viewed as “washed up,” and was the last hero targeted because he was viewed as the weakest left. It’s unclear how much of this was intentional, under-the-radar play, but based on his confessionals and reputation for sticking to his guns it’s likely Colby had really just gotten old.

His poor game in Heroes vs. Villains certainly counts against him, but as I’ve said in the past, it’s more important to view a player’s first game or imagine how they would perform in repeated plays against strangers.

What could we expect if Colby were to play again?

Interestingly enough, Colby’s reputation may have changed after Heroes vs. Villains. It’s likely that if he returned again, his poor showing would actually help him be viewed as less of a threat than he is. This is not certain of course, and it’s likely he’d be pegged as threatening once again. His big name and personality could certainly set him up as an easy target once again. But if he were able to play up his “superman in a fat suit” persona, it’s possible he could slip into the post-merge and find some alliances.

On the other hand, if Colby were to play with complete strangers, I imagine him being comparable to Andrew Savage. This is, of course, if he were to play again at his current age. It’s unlikely he would perform as well in challenges. And, over time, Colby has become somewhat…curmudgeonly, to put it nicely. But if Andrew Savage were on a winning tribe, who’s to say what could happen? Colby’s game has evolved over his plays, which makes it difficult to predict what would happen if he played again. But his dominance in S2, his legacy as one of the best challenge performers ever, and his “get out of jail free” cards in his later appearances earn Colby a place among the best of the best.