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On Thursday's finale, Jan Gentry has just three "Survivors' to beat.
By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 13, 2002
Oddsmakers and some fans didn't expect her to make it past the first vote. [Week by week with Jan Gentry]
But friends and family say they always believed Tampa resident Jan Gentry had what it takes to reach the final four contestants in CBS's reality series Survivor: Thailand: determination, charisma and a smart strategy.
"Before she ever applied for the show, we used to talk about (previous Survivor editions) and the strategies," said Michelle Emery, a friend of Gentry's and a fellow first-grade teacher at McKitrick Elementary School in Lutz. "We commented about people who flew under the radar and didn't get involved in any controversy. I feel pretty confident she's made it into the top two."
On Thursday, viewers saw how Gentry's low-profile approach paid off, watching her join used car salesman Brian Heidik, restaurateur Clay Jordan and Navy swimming instructor Helen Glover among the show's final four contestants -- culled from a field of 16 competitors living together for 39 days on the remote island of Koh Tarutao off the southern coast of Thailand.
Almost all of the game's action was filmed in Thailand over the summer and edited into hourlong episodes. Fans Thursday saw 37-year-old software developer Ted Rogers Jr. voted out of the game after players made promises and lied to each other to avoid expulsion.
The vote meant Gentry, 54, would join her three remaining tribemates in vying for the game's $1-million jackpot, to be revealed during a two-hour finale Thursday in Los Angeles.
Competitors, forbidden to speak with the press until they are shown being ejected from the game, will head west for the broadcast, which will include an hourlong reunion special.
From the start, McKitrick principal Lisa Yost predicted Gentry would do well, convinced her personality and drive would win over teammates.
"When she came to interview for the job here, it was raining cats and dogs and we had no driveway," Yost explained. "She climbed a fence and ran through mud to talk to me because she wanted to work here. She doesn't give up."
Some kids at McKitrick grew concerned early in the show's run, as Gentry's Chuay Gahn tribe repeatedly lost challenge competitions that forced them to forgo luxury rewards or eject team members, Yost said.
Gentry also faltered a bit midway through the competition -- shown stumbling over a rock after drinking wine during a party, in a display of tipsyness that might not reflect well on an educator.
"She told me ... (Survivor producers) only show you what they want you to see. ... She stumbled over a rock and they made it look like she was drunk," said Yost, noting that no parents or co-workers complained about the scene. "Teachers are held to a higher standard ... but the parents here know her and they're not worried."
Emery, who initially encouraged Gentry to apply for the show, said she seems to be adjusting well to the fame, savoring the taste of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"People have said seeing a older woman do so well is inspirational," Emery added. "I think she appeals to a wide range of people."
It wasn't always that way. Early on, oddsmakers ranked Gentry's chances of winning Survivor among the lowest. (She still only gets 3 to 1 odds on the online betting site Intertops.com, behind Heidik and even with Glover.)
Indeed, Gentry's prospects looked grim from the first episode, when she was selected along with 61-year-old land broker Jake Billingsley to pick the game's two teams. While Billingsley chose young, athletic types, she picked a team filled with nice, older people who hardly fit the mold for Survivor success.
Many fans predicted Billingsley's Sook Jai would eat them alive. But her Chuay Gahn group lucked out in a string of victories midway through the game that hobbled Sook Jai, creating the oldest group of Survivor finalists since the show's 2000 debut.
Tim Gilman, a San Francisco software writer who created the Web site survivornews.net, said fans still predict Heidik and Jordan will be the game's final two contestants. (A "jury" of six ejected contestants will choose the winner; if the game follows previous patterns, the votes won't be counted until Thursday's show.)
"I think (fans of the show) like her ... because she's the underdog," Gilman said. "I think you have to credit both her doing a good job (picking the team) and being lucky."
Friends and family said Gentry has abided by the game's rules and refused to divulge details about the game. Yost doesn't even know if Gentry will keep working at McKitrick if she wins the big prize.
Friends and co-workers gathered at a nearby restaurant for a few weeks to watch Survivor: Thailand when the show started, but found the public setting too noisy. The school's staff Christmas party falls on the same night as the finale, so Yost expects they will find a way to watch the show and cheer on the friend they expect to return $1-million richer.
"Good things happen to good people," Yost added. "I've got good feelings about this."
WEEK 2: Jan doesn't complain when teammate Helen Glover -- who insists she knows how to find the tribe's watering hole without a map -- turns an hourlong trip into a six-hour search, as the two paddle around trying to remember where it was.
WEEK 3: Jan starts her habit of flying under the radar, taking a back seat during a tribe meeting to discuss teammate Ghandia Johnson's allegations that fellow tribe member Ted Rogers Jr. groped Johnson while she was sleeping.
WEEK 5: Jan wisely passes up a blanket offer made by host Jeff Probst to allow anyone to switch tribes -- another gut-level decision that kept her off the losing Sook Jai tribe.
WEEK 6: Teammates see her as a flake for holding a funeral for a stillborn bat -- making her a prime candidate for expulsion. But Chuay Gahn is starting a long streak of immunity challenge wins, keeping her out of danger until she's no longer perceived as a threat.
WEEK 7: Sook Jai joins Chuay Gahn in the same living space, and at a celebratory party, Jan drinks some wine and stumbles over a rock. Not the best national television moment for an elementary school teacher.
WEEK 10: Jan gets her first Tribal Council vote from Jake, who later says he only voted for her because she said she'd be happy to be among the seven ejected competitors who choose the final winner. Jan's friends in Tampa don't buy it.
WEEK 11: Son Jef gamely eats grubs in an attempt to win 24 hours with his mom on the island. The ejection of Jake and growing friction between Ted and Clay Jordan convince fans that Jan is a shoo-in to make the show's final four.
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