Noelle Lambert Talks Competing on 'Survivor,' the Paralympic Games, and More

Noelle Lambert chatted with Complex to talk about participating Season 43 'Survivor,' competing in the Paralympic Games, inspiring people and more.

Noelle Lambert Survivor Interview Lead

Image via CBS/Getty

Noelle Lambert Survivor Interview Lead

For the past 23 years and 43 seasons, Survivor has been captivating audiences across the globe as one of the longest-running reality television shows of all time. Over the past two-plus decades, Survivor has been played in many different iterations and in a number of different countries, ranging from China to Australia to Kenya. Over the last 11 seasons, the show has found a new consistent home on the island of Fiji, where the Melanesian country plays host to a fast-paced, twist-filled version of the game that would seem almost unrecognizable to the contestants of its early seasons.

Survivor’s three pillars—outwit, outlast, and outplay have fascinated viewers by mixing physical challenges, cutthroat strategic gameplay, and a player’s oft-underrated social game. But what really separates this show from other reality TV (other than its host, Jeff Probst, who seems to be aging at the same rate as Pharrell) is its human element. When you throw a bunch of random strangers from different walks of life on an island together and push them to their limit, vulnerability takes center stage, leading to heartwarming, inspirational, saddening, and countless other types of moments. 

That becomes even more amplified when you add a castaway like Noelle Lambert into the mix. During the summer of 2016, Lambert was a standout sophomore lacrosse player at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. While in Martha’s Vineyard with her teammate and roommate Kelly Moran, Lambert got into a moped accident, leading to the amputation of her left leg above the knee. 

Since her accident, Lambert has vowed to turn a horrific situation into a positive one, completely changing her outlook on life. 

“I’m the person that will look at my accident and view it as a positive and view it as something I’m extremely grateful for,” Lambert says. “Before my accident, I was very lazy. I didn’t appreciate the hard work.”

On top of scoring a goal in her first lacrosse game back after her accident, Lambert has competed for Team USA in the Paralympic Games in Tokyo and was on Season 43 of Survivor, one of the most competitive in the show’s history. In a season filled with a number of shocking twists and turns, competitive gameplay, blindsides, and more, Lambert’s ability to take it all in stride and not use her accident as an excuse or weakness will undoubtedly be what the season is remembered for in the coming years.

Complex sat down with Lambert recently to discuss her time on the show, how she hopes to be an inspiration for other amputees, her partnership with No Bull, and more. This conversation has been condensed for clarity.

Noelle Lambert Survivor Interview 1

Can you start us off with a very top level summary of your experience on Survivor?
Well, Survivor kind of fell in my lap, I was actually recruited to be on the show. It worked out perfectly because my mom is the biggest, diehard Survivor fan there is. So she got me into watching it at a very young age and she was telling me for years that I need to get on the show. I was like, “I’ve never seen an above-knee amputee on the show before, so why would I apply?” Then when I was in Tokyo for the Paralympic Games, the head casting director actually DM’d me on Instagram. He was like, “Hey, have you ever thought about going on Survivor?” I never even thought that I was gonna get actually put on the show. I thought I was gonna go through the whole application process and they’d be like, “Oh, we’re gonna go with someone else.” When I first got the call that I was officially going on, I would be lying to say I was extremely excited. I was scared to death. Watching the show, I knew the physical challenges are extremely hard. And then you have to think about not eating, not being able to sleep. 

What I came to realize when I was on it, I was scared of being alone. Back home, I rely on my support system. I rely on my loved ones and my coaches and my teammates, and so going out there, I was like, “I’m gonna be alone. So this is gonna be a really great test to see if I can do it.” But then you grow great relationships and great bonds with the people that you’re doing the show with. And that’s what a lot of people don’t realize. It’s a very cutthroat game, but we have genuine conversations for 10 hours of the day. So you get to know people and it was just a beautiful thing because I’m the type of person that doubts myself before everything I do. It doesn’t mean that I stop doing it. It just gives me more motivation. Having my castmates there egging me on, cheering for me, and actually getting me through the whole experience, I’m so fortunate to have had that.

But as a fan, to be able to see them behind the scenes, how they do everything, it’s incredible. It’s really nothing like what I thought it was gonna be. I mean, you’re really not eating. The only thing I ate for the first eight days was coconut. That was the only thing I put in my body, that was like a really rude awakening. Getting to see Jeff Probst every day was so cool. Seeing Jeff you just immediately have this adrenaline and you’re just like, “Let’s go, I’ll run through a brick wall for you.” Looking back on everything, I’m really grateful for the whole experience. I’m grateful for how I exited the game. My vote-off episode was a roller coaster of emotions. I had the highest of highs and then the lowest of lows. So to go out like that and then receive a lot of love from the fans and everything was really incredible.

You mentioned seeing a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff. What, as a fan, surprised you the most that you weren’t expecting? 
I definitely have to say what people don’t realize is they need literally everything on camera. They don’t like people having conversations off-camera because they don’t want to miss anything, which is understandable. So every time we had to go to a challenge, or before we had to go to Tribal Council, we had to take boats there. They weren’t on the same island, so we would have to go into lockdown. When we were in lockdown, we could not speak or look at our other castmates because they didn’t want to miss anything. They don’t want people doing things behind the camera that they can’t explain afterward. It’s crazy because they’ve been doing the show for 43 seasons, so everything they do, they do for a reason. Another thing that I realized that I was shocked about is that the cameramen will not talk to you. They only tell you things that you need to know. So when you’re bored and you want to talk to the cameramen, they will just listen to you. They will not speak. So it’s actually really funny when you wanna kind of mess with them, or you want to just like, say jokes back and forth.

I will say this was a really special moment, the first moment that was like, “Oh my God, OK, I’m actually doing Survivor.” When we were pulling up on the beach for that marooning challenge, and the first time we’re seeing Jeff and we were coming in on the boats. From far away I thought there were like a hundred people on the set. And I was like, “Are they having Fijian people come and watch the challenge for appreciation for the show? And then we pull up and it’s everybody on the crew. I did not expect this many people [to be] working. It was really, really cool. For every single challenge, you’re competing in front of 150 people, so it gives you more adrenaline. It’s like, “All right, I’m not playing by myself. I’m playing in front of other people. This is pretty cool.”

You mentioned kind of doubting yourself being the first above-the-knee amputee to compete on Survivor. You’re one of the very few amputees who have competed in the show’s history. Can you just speak to what that’s like representing such a small group of people on a show that’s been around for 43 seasons?
I will say that the reason why I did it is because I knew that it would be a great representation for the amputee community and the disabled community. I wanted to show that positive impact to be that kind of positive light for people who maybe look like me. Even people who are just going through difficult times that they can see me and see that I’m doing arguably one of the hardest reality TV shows there is. And seeing that and kind of inspiring them. I’m extremely grateful to have that title of being the first above-knee amputee because I think it’s gonna be a beautiful thing. It’s gonna pave the way for other amputees to do things out of their comfort zones and do these really difficult challenges.

That’s something that I am extremely grateful for and that I can take away from this whole experience and say I at least touched one person’s life or two and have those positive messages afterward. That was one of the biggest reasons why I was OK with getting voted off, because I had all these people flooding my messages, just saying, “Thank you so much for just showing up and doing this challenge because it’s helped me.” So that was amazing to see and it really makes you appreciate the process a lot more.

How often was your amputation a topic around camp for you and your other tribe mates?
I’m the type of person that will joke around with you. I’ll give you the leg jokes, I’ll give you whatever you want to make you feel comfortable to ask questions. I’m an open book. I knew going into it, I could be viewed as a threat. So I knew people were gonna be looking at me and thinking, is she even gonna be able to do these challenges? So that was really tough in the beginning. From that very first challenge, I knew I needed to show them that I can do anything; it was never an issue.

I would say it got brought up once, but the person that brought it up to me was actually just trying to listen. He said, “I wanna take you to the end, but some people might not want to.” But the feeling that I got from my castmates was that they never looked at me differently because I was an amputee; they knew that I never used it as an excuse. That paved the way for them to not feel sorry for me ever. I was joking around with them all the time, but it wasn’t as big of a thing as some people might think, which I’m grateful for. I’m really grateful for my castmates. That’s something that I struggled with going into the game. I think it was the third episode and the challenge where I took my leg off and I was able to dive into the water. I didn’t get to see or hear any of this when I was on the island. But watching it back, I remember hearing Cody, the guy on my tribe, say she put her money where her mouth is and I can’t doubt her anymore. That was incredible for me. I honestly wish he said it to my face on the island, I would’ve thanked him for that. I remember texting Cody, “Thank you, that really meant a lot.” I know people are gonna be looking at me because I’m an amputee and they might be looking at me differently. But it just shows the type of people I played this game with and how incredible they were because they really never made me feel different. 

The beautiful thing about Survivor nowadays too is everyone has a story to tell and everyone has something in their life that they can genuinely talk about. I was just trying to never make it about me. I always wanted to hear about other people. I also lied to everybody and didn’t tell them I was a Paralympian, which they didn’t show until the last episode. Typically professional athletes lie about their occupation, so I’m just gonna go in and be like, “Yeah I’m a lacrosse coach.”

You touched on it a lot during your time on the show. It seems like you really use your accident as a positive driving force in your life and as motivation. Can you speak more to that?
I’m the person that will look at my accident and view it as a positive and view it as something I’m extremely grateful for. Before my accident, I was very lazy. I didn’t appreciate the hard work. I hated going to practice. I hated lifting. I only loved going to games. You put me in a game scenario, I’ll die on the field. But having my accident happen to me, it really made me realize I can’t just go through the motions. If I want to return to playing lacrosse again, I need to put in the hard work. It just made me really appreciate the process it takes and what being a true athlete is. It prepared me for the real world and the things that I’m doing now. It just really made me think about what was important in life. It is just a leg. I’m still alive, I’m still breathing, and it’s been amazing because I’ve been able to use my whole experience and kind of turn it into a positive and to show amputees or people going through a difficult time or people with a, a disability that just because something like this happens, it doesn’t mean your life is over and it doesn’t mean that you’re incapable of doing things. You can do anything you put your mind to. I am living proof of that.

Obviously two very different things, but can you compare your experiences competing on Survivor and in the Paralympic Games?
I will say, the mental part of it is very similar because, when I was in Tokyo, you work so hard for 15 seconds in one race. So the whole mental aspect of it, you’re second-guessing yourself and you’re telling yourself everything has to be perfect in this race. Everything. I can’t get a second chance. Going into Survivor, you don’t get a second chance. You do something wrong and your butt can get voted off the island. Every day your mind is always going in different directions. You’re always worrying about different things. The physical experience is definitely different. 

You use the days that you have out in Survivor to connect with people to kind of grow your relationships to get further in the game. That’s also really important. But I will say that the whole mental aspect of it, you get one shot and I remember Jeff told us right before the game started, he was like, “You get one shot to play this game, there are very few people that will come back and play again, but just think you have one opportunity to play. Don’t mess it up.” Which is terrifying. 

Noelle Lambert Survivor Interview 2

Do you think you’d ever come back if they asked?
I would absolutely do it again, no questions asked. It’s such a cool experience because like, yes you’re on a reality TV show, but like you’re learning so much about yourself and you’re doing all these different challenges so you could take so much away from it. If I were to do something like Too Hot to Handle you get nothing out of it. 

There was that one challenge with the balance beam and then the beanbag toss that turned out to be one of the biggest comebacks in Survivor history. Can you speak about that moment—what it meant to you to win and then see everybody’s reaction to you winning?
So we were walking in the challenge and we got to see everything and I just saw a balance beam and I’m like, “I’m out, I’m not winning this thing.” Then when I found out that it was where you get the letters from loved ones I was telling myself, “You know what? I might not be able to get this but don’t quit. Don’t give up.” All I remember is starting it and then just trying everything possible to get across that beam. I was so close to quitting and I think it, there was that one moment where I just stepped off and I was like, “I’m done.” On TV it shows what, like 10 minutes? I was on the balance beam for probably 25 to 30 minutes and I was struggling. So the moment I was about to quit, I remember hearing my castmates start cheering for me. I remember hearing Karla say, “You got this, Noelle.” And that lit a fire under my butt because I had never worked with Karla in that game up until that moment. So I was like, for this girl to cheer for me right now, this just shows that it’s bigger than just the game. 

By the time that I actually got to the beanbag part, people had probably thrown over a hundred times. I didn’t get it in two times, like what they showed on TV, I probably threw it like 20 times. When I stuck the landing, I just remembered dropping and just started bawling my eyes out. I started getting emotional and to look up and see everybody surrounding me, it was a beautiful thing. It’s the moment that I related to when I returned to playing lacrosse again and my first game back; I was able to score a goal and then I was sharing that whole moment with my teammates and my coaches and they were surrounding me. That was like the exact same moment and even though we were competing against each other for a million dollars, they were the reasons why I kept going. But I just thought of having that moment for somebody who was watching, that’s what I took away from it. There’s gonna be some people watching this. 

And, of course, it was my vote off episode and when I got voted off, my inbox was flooded with messages. People were commenting and it was all positive and it really made getting voted off really easy. I know that people go through a very difficult time when they get voted off, getting criticized from fans and everything. To have people be very supportive in saying how much of an inspiration I am, I just had to just appreciate it and really feel grateful for it. It was incredible and I really couldn’t have picked a better episode to go out on. Of course, I would love to win the million dollars, but at the end of the day, I was doing this for a much bigger thing to shine a positive light on the amputee community and to show that we are capable of doing everything.

I want to talk about the winner of your season, Mike Gabler. His donation announcement at the finale was one of the most emotional moments in the show’s history. What was it like being a part of that and seeing that unfold in real time?
I had no idea what he was doing with the money. Gabler is such a standout amazing human being. When we were out there, you could see how caring he is. I remember the first time he got to merge beach, he made his own bed out of bamboo. And then he said, “Noelle, I want you to sleep here, this is your spot.” The reason why a lot of us voted for Gabler is because he had a pretty perfect game. He was never on the wrong side of the votes. He never got his name written down. He was in every single alliance. He made everybody comfortable. He had an incredible social game. I think watching it back, his edit didn’t do him justice. But I think everything should be put to bed after Gabler announced that he’s going to donate the million dollars to veterans. That is an incredibly beautiful gesture and that was something that none of us really expected. It’s never been done before in the history of Survivor. For him to be so selfless and to help change so many people’s lives is amazing.

After the finale, all these fans are attacking us as jury members, and at the end of the day, it’s a reality TV show. It’s so tough for the other final three members, especially because they have to leave 24 hours later and they don’t have time to cope and to kind of process everything. But if I was sitting in the final three, and lost, I would’ve looked at him and been grateful to have lost to Gabler.

What are your thoughts on the current iteration of Survivor? The very fast-paced 26 days versus the 39 days and the way things are now versus how they used to be?
I will say I went into it thinking that I want to do the 39 days because I want the full experience, but doing 26 days, I couldn’t even imagine doing 39 days. The food is not the worst part. The worst part is your off days, the days that you have nothing. In between the challenges and during a 39-day season, you have multiple of those in a row. You literally feel like death on those days when you have nothing because you’re so bored. 

I will say like all the advantages and everything, it’s so hard to keep up with. It’s so hard to keep anything a secret. Next season for 44, they’re doing the idols differently, which is really, really cool, I think it’s gonna be like an interesting twist.

I hate the shot in the dark, because you can never blindside someone fully. I blindsided James pretty good, but you can never tell anybody you’re going home tonight because then they’ll be like, “Okay, I’ll just play my shot in the dark.” And out of the three seasons they’ve had it so far never, it’s never worked. 

I don’t think they’re ever gonna go back to 39 days ever. I really hope they bring loved ones back. But it seems like they’ve just figured out a way to do this show in a much cheaper way. And it still works for everybody, it’s still very entertaining. It’s still one of the best TV shows there is. 

Noelle Lambert Survivor Interview Paralympics

To wrap things up, I just want to talk about No Bull. Can you speak about how supportive they are as a partner and what it’s like being a No Bull athlete?
I actually heard of No Bull when I was in college from one of my assistant coaches. She was obsessed with it. She’s a big CrossFitter. I love their company, I love their brand, and I love their motives. When I was starting with track, that was the one company that I really wanted to partner with because their whole mantra is literally me. It just worked out perfectly that they’re from Boston, so it’s a home base for me. I really love how they treat their athletes and how they treat them like family. It doesn’t feel like it’s like a partnership. 

Where it was like a year and a half, two years ago, and to see where it’s been going, it’s incredible. They’re really getting up there and they’re one of the biggest names in CrossFit. It’s incredible to be a part of. 

They always say, “We pick people that embody our brand, that we know that we create a home with.” It’s really humbling going to these events, and being with all these CrossFitters because they’re just insane. It really is like a tight-knit family and you just feel close with everybody, everybody on the staff, everybody who works for No Bull. It’s an amazing community to be a part of.

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