Meet Mike Gabler, the metalhead heart valve specialist who won Season 43 of hit reality TV show competition Survivor and donated the entire $1 million prize to charity.
This generous move was something the contestant, who was always referred to by his last name, kept as a secret from the other competitors, meaning it did not at all influence the jury’s votes. Throughout the season, Gabler had to lay low to avoid being targeted at tribal council, which earned him the nickname “Alli-Gabler,” because he was a dangerous threat who had to submerge himself in order to not attract attention.
Gabler was on Loudwire’s radar too, but for different reasons. In the first episode, the heart valve specialist who works with U.S. armed forces veterans reveals himself to be a metalhead in conversation with another competitor. We’ll get to more of that in just a bit, but once we saw that, Gabler became our hopeful to win it all.
Later discovering that he had a desire to win the million dollars to help out veterans in an even bigger way made him all the more likable as a favorite.
In this interview, we chat with Gabler about his time on the show, his love for heavy metal and how all of that prize money is being divvied up.
Let’s talk about the first episode of Season 43. You and Ellie, who later became rivals and you were able to get her voted out, formed a quick bond over heavy metal. However, it wasn’t totally sincere as she later confessed that her late sister was a metal fan and she was more or less parroting bands her sister was a fan of. Everyone plays their game differently, as we know. What was your reaction when you saw this on TV?
She was really cool. It would have been better if she was into metal because we could have talked a little bit more. She was playing her game and it’s all part of it.
One of the interesting things about being on the show and then watching the edit on TV is that you don’t know exactly how it’s going to be portrayed. Then there’s other nuggets that will pop up and you’re like, “Ah-ha! I knew it!”
I was really blessed and lucky to be in a season with so many cool people. We’re all still friends. It’s a game of attrition and, bit by bit, people get knocked out, but it sure was a lot of fun being on that crazy adventure.
When you’re not competing on wild reality TV shows, you’re a practicing heart valve specialist. How long have you been doing that for?
I’m not an MD, but I do go into surgery. I consult with the heart team ahead of time for a transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR). There are four valves in your heart and what we do is we take a metal stent that has bovine pericardial tissue that will seal nicely into the aortic valve or mitral valve or wherever.
Once we figure out the access point, the approach and the best size for each patient, I’ll go into the procedure with the physicians (usually an interventional cardiologist and a surgeon) thee anesthesiologist, some nurses and techs and my job is to put the valve together.
My role is like when you’re at the airport, your plane lands and you see those guys with orange cones directing the pilot. I’m the cone guy — I make my suggestions, they do it and we get the valve implanted. The whole procedure takes about an hour and it’s remarkable. We’re doing four of them tomorrow.
My career has spanned over 20 years, and it’s really amazing to work in healthcare, serving the community, taking care of people and working with this cool technology. The patients go home the next day with an incision about a centimeter long in their groin and that’s it.
At what age did you become a metal fan? What first got you into it?
My dad took me on my first concert back in February of 1984 — Ozzy Osbourne on the Bark at the Moon tour with Motley Crue opening in support of Shout at the Devil. A couple years later I saw Ozzy again on The Ultimate Sin tour with Metallica opening. They still had Cliff Burton and were supporting Master of Puppets.
Motley Crue were amazing and the one song that really stood out to me at that concert was “Take Me To the Top.” The next day, I was like, “I’ve got to get that record.”
For so many, music is a place of comfort and helps gets us through a lot of difficult times. What was it like without music for the 26 days you were competing on Survivor? That had to be strange.
[Contestant] Jesse [Lopez] and I were true metal people together.
When you walk into the immunity challenge area, you never knew what you were going to see. You’d walk out of the jungle and there would be this contraption or a field and nets, mud pits…whatever, right in front of you.
I’d be thinking about Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” [mimics riff vocally] and Jesse would do that, too. We would just pump ourselves up because we haven’t eaten in days. We’re starving. I lost 32 pounds in a very short amount of time and the longest I went without eating was about 12 days. So, Survivor is real — if you don’t find it or win it, you don’t eat.
At the immunity challenge, you turn the corner and I would always flip a switch. Those competitions are every bit of an hour or even longer sometimes. If you take you and me today, well fed and well rested, it would gas us both.
So, coming out of the jungle and having some music in your head to harden you and amp you up was a real benefit.
You are the first ever Survivor winner to donate your $1 million prize. You donated the entire prize package, correct?
The entire million dollars, yes sir.
Making sure this money goes to veteran services was very important to you. Did you divide the money up or did you donate it all to one establishment?
We divided it up.
Going into the game, my wife and I talked about what I’d do with the money if I won. We’ve got one kid in college and another one that’s going to college in a couple of years. We’ve got a house payment… Everybody could always use more money, but we started thinking about it and we feel very blessed where we are in life. We’ve worked really hard.
Just knowing how important that money is to people out there, especially veterans… one percent of our nation defend the 99 percent of us. They come home, but sometimes they don’t come all the way home [carrying trauma, injury, etc. back with them] and there’s a lot that is lacking [regarding veteran care], which is backed up by horrible statistics regarding veteran suicide.
I never had the honor of serving, but to have the honor to serve those who served us is very big to me, especially coming from a military family. If we save one life, it’s worth it and we’re going to be saving more than that because we’ve donated to a variety of very important veterans foundations. Some of them deal directly with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), TBI (traumatic brain injury) and suicide prevention.
We also helped out a couple of other foundations that are equally important, such as the Special Operations Wounded Warrior Foundation, who take care of the children of the fallen Special Forces folks and Medal of Honor recipients basically from the cradle to college.
How much money has been given out so far?
To date, we’ve given away $550,000 and we have about $425,000 to go.
When I got back from the show, we visited with some accountants to make sure that we don’t get in trouble with the IRS like Survivor Season 1 winner Richard Hatch did. We created this thing called a Donor-Advised Fund where all the money bypassed me and went directly into that fund so that every penny that goes in there has to be used for veterans’ charities, 501 3c charities. I can’t even buy a cup of coffee with it.
By parking the money in there, we minimize the taxes, which was a really important step.
In your daily life, you serve those who served and on Survivor you competed with another noteworthy hero fighting their own personal battle, Noel Lambert, a track and field paralympian.
She’s the young woman on the show who only has one leg and is a remarkable person.
I was talking to her after the season ended about creating a foundation or a fund and she gave me an example of her foundation called Born to Run, which anybody can donate to.
There’s this little boy in Africa who was born without any legs and he’s five years old now. He was kind of scooting around on his bum trying to play soccer with his hands. His parents can’t afford to buy prosthetic legs and Nicole said it’s going to be $10,000 to get him a new pair of legs.
I thought, “Well, how much for those badass blades like you have Noel?” It was $10,000 more so we donated some of my prize money and took care of his legs. He’s walking around now. It’s unbelievable to see this amazing child, and it’s just warms your heart.
So, it’s a non-veteran charity that we donated to, but it’s for a good cause to help a child walk.
Noel was a fantastic, inspiring competitor on Survivor. There was a challenge it looked like she was going to give up on and she wound up making one of the best comebacks the show has ever seen. When she collapses right when she secures the win, you can tell that victory moment is about so much more than a challenge on a reality TV show.
I was in the lane next to her. It was 105 degrees outside with 95 percent humidity.
I could see her because everybody got through the obstacle course faster than she did and she was falling off the balance beam — on a prosthetic leg for goodness sakes. She had tears in her eyes but fire in her heart, and she just kept coming and every time I turned around to get another beanbag to throw to try to win this and win some food, I’d see her a little closer. Eventually she got to the end and on her second throw, nails it. Total athlete, total stud.
Noel, was an inspiration throughout the entire season, not just for me, but I think anybody watching.
Survivor Reward Challenge: Put a Ring On It
Since Ellie brought up Mastodon — a 21st century metal band — what are some of the more modern bands you like?
Lamb of God are really good. They’ve got some great intensity.
They’re not metal, but Queens of the Stone Age are mostly from the 21st century. They just put together cool music and they’re original.
I really like Amon Amarth, too.
Amon Amarth just keep playing bigger and bigger venues. It’s been really great to see their rise in popularity over the last couple of decades.
Go see them now because they’re going to be in even bigger venues going forward!
That’s always kind of fun. The last time I saw Slayer was in Boise, Idaho, at the Revolution Center, which is a pretty small venue [editor’s note: 2,300 capacity venue] and it’s really cool.