Survivor ‘Hero' coaches Special Olympics surfing in Brevard

Satellite Beach native Ashley Nolan returns home after reality competition

By Kirstin O’Connor - Reporter/Anchor, Brianna Volz - Web producer

COCOA BEACH, Fla. - Season 37 of the hit reality show, “Survivor,” began Wednesday night and a former contestant who calls Central Florida home is reflecting on her experience and sharing her love for a new competition.

"It felt like I was waking up on a postcard, every single morning,” Ashley Nolan, of Season 35, said.

The “Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers" participant from Satellite Beach remembers Fiji as the best and hardest experience of her life. She said the mix of emotions she felt is what she thinks makes the experience so incredible.

“It’s just on. When Jeff says, 'Go,' it’s on, and that’s your life. It’s just crazy,” Nolan said.

Nolan lasted until day 36, just three days shy of the Final Tribal Council. Holding her purple “Survivor” buff, which she attained after the merge, Nolan said she played to win.

“By day 40, we were all on a plane coming home, so it wasn’t, like, too much of an adjustment period for me,” Nolan said.

[WATCH: Ashley Nolan shares her 'Survivor' story]

But Nolan said her return to Brevard County gave her a new appreciation for family, friends and her community.

“You really take a step back and it's like, 'What is important?' And it's just people,” Nolan said.

Taking what she learned from “Survivor,” the former lifeguard for Brevard County Ocean Rescue started her own surf school, and shortly after, got involved with Special Olympics.

Her new tribe of 25 Special Olympics athletes from Central Florida met every Saturday morning, with the sunrise, to practice for the Area Surf Competition.

Isaiah Vargas, 11, hit the waves as soon as the group completed its pre-stretch.

"As a special needs child, he's limited to do certain things, but when I tell his peers and I tell other adults that Isaiah is an Olympic surfer and he actually does the things that he does, they're very impressed,” Rolondo Vargas, Isaiah’s dad, said.

Nolan said it's not unusual to see the children leave their comfort zones when they're surfing.

“Surfers come out that are nonverbal and all of a sudden they're talking, or all of a sudden they're smiling and they generally don't smile,” Nolan said.

Nolan described “Survivor” as one of the most isolating experiences, she believes, anyone could experience.

“We need that interaction, we need that feel-good stimulus that we get from other people,” Nolan said.

She said the children she works with get to experience that by attending surfing lessons.

“And they are just the most deserving wonderful people in the world who just need that companionship just like everyone else and that outlet,” she said. 

Nolan said she feels lucky to have been taken in by Special Olympics as a coach, with a group she now considers family. 

“The smiles that they bring, the high fives after a good wave,” Nolan said.

[PREVIOUS STORIES: Brevard County lifeguard to compete on 'Survivor' | Meet Ashley Nolan, Central Florida's new 'Survivor' star]

The "Survivor" contestant, who auditioned more than two years ago at a casting call at Port Canaveral in her home county, said she and her dad had always watched the show together and joked that one day, she would be on it.

When she attended the event, she thought the chances that she'd be picked were slim to none. A few months later, she finally got the call that changed everything.

"Eight months later, I got a call and I thought it was a joke. They're like, 'Hey, this is so and so from CBS casting,' and I'm like, 'No, it's not. No way. It can't be,'" Nolan said about her call back.

They told Nolan they wanted her in Los Angeles by the following week to get the ball rolling. She put her responsibilities at home on hold and committed to the life-changing competition.

Nolan said she didn't know then how much the show would change her life, but she's glad it did.

"I am, like, right where I need to be right now," Nolan said.

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