Thursday, September 9, 2010

Duke grad not your average 'Survivor'

Kelly Bruno has brains and brawn in equal quantities.

The 26-year-old graduated from Duke University in 2005 with a degree in biology, and currently is in her second year of studies at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine (for the moment, she hopes to pursue a career in anesthesiology).

At the same time, Bruno is a serious endurance athlete who has completed races including full Ironman events in Arizona and Hawaii and the Bataan Memorial Death March, a marathon she ran earlier this year while carrying a 35-pound rucksack.

But neither her intelligence nor her athletic prowess will make her stand out initially when she makes her prime-time television debut on the season premiere of "Survivor: Nicaragua," set to air at 8 p.m. Wednesday on CBS.

Instead, much ado will likely be made about her disability: Bruno lost her right leg below the knee at 6 months old, the result of a congenital birth defect. She is the second amputee to compete on "Survivor," following Chad Crittenden ("Vanuatu," 2004).

In a recent interview, Bruno spoke with us about what she did to prepare for "Survivor," how being an amputee might affect her game, and the loss of her father, who was killed last January in the earthquake in Haiti, where he was performing missionary work.

Q. So prior to heading to Nicaragua, what’s the craziest thing you’d ever done in your life?

I went skydiving. That was probably like the riskiest thing I’ve ever done.

Q. The Bataan Death March sounds like it was pretty crazy, too.

It was awesome. It was so cool. I finished the race running a 10-minute mile at the end. I mean, it took me seven hours to do the whole thing. It was nuts. But I had a lot of energy left. It was a really great race.

Q. You doing anymore races this year?

Pinehurst Triathlon in October, and then probably the (Wrightsville Beach) Marathon (in Wilmington) in March.

Q. OK, so "Survivor": What was your motivation for applying to the show?

A friend recommended it to me, thought that I would be a good candidate for it. It seemed like an interesting adventure. I’ve done a lot of different kinds of challenges. I’m always looking for something to work towards, some kind of adventure, some kind of challenge, some kind of event. Most of the stuff I do is triathlon-related at this point, but I did a marathon last year with a 35-pound rucksack. (I like) stuff like that, unusual stuff, and so this one just seemed like the same kind of challenge to me. I had nothing to lose by applying is what I figured.

Q. Between the time you got cast and the time you left, what kinds of things did you do to get ready?

I started doing a lot more CrossFit training (CrossFit is a core strength and conditioning program), since I figured the challenges would require more of that kind of skill and fitness. And then I did a lot of balance stuff, because I am an amputee and I knew the most difficult part for me would be balance-type events. I actually practiced some puzzle-type things on the computer just to kind of get my mind focused on how to piece things together because I knew the puzzles might be a challenge. I watched a lot of old episodes and seasons to see how people handled situations and tried to take notes on that – see what worked, see what didn’t work. But at the end of the day, I don’t know if there’s any great way to prepare for it. I mean, I certainly felt more prepared. I’m glad I did what I did. But there’s certainly a lot more I could have done, I think.

Q. Did you have a particular strategy going in?

The difficult thing for me was, because of my leg, I wanted to make sure that people didn’t see me as a liability, as a person with a physical disability. So I wanted to make sure I kind of proved myself, and that was a big part of kind of my strategy going in: making sure that people believed that I could do everything that they could. And then obviously I went with more the nice-girl personality, trying to make friends. Have friends everywhere.

Q. What was your initial reaction when you found out the theme for the season was going to be old vs. young?

Part of me was really surprised, I think, but part of me was a little disappointed almost because of the types of interaction that I’ve had. I kind of I grew up very early on, and I feel like I’m kind of older than my age, so I really actually tend to connect with older adults. I really thought that was gonna be an advantage for me, so when it ended up splitting, with the young people on one side and old people on the other, I mean … it kind of changes the dynamic of my plan. I think I relate better to 30-year-olds than 19-year-olds at this point, so I wasn’t thrilled. But you make the most of it.

Q. Having a full life’s worth of experience as an amputee and having been in all types of social situations, what was your sense as you prepared for this adventure of how your disability might help or hurt you in the game?

Well, going in I talked to some people about the possibility that it would actually make my game more difficult because I could potentially be a charity case. If I made it as far as everybody else did, there was that possibility that people would think that I might deserve it more than others. ... So weighing that with knowing that a lot of people don’t like to be beat by someone with one leg. It can be humbling, but I think that moreso, some people are threatened by it. I’ve been at races and people want to beat me because they don’t want to get beat by someone that has one leg. So I knew that was gonna be a challenge, too, to kind of convince people that we were on equal playing field and that I was the same as them and that I worked as hard as everyone else did to get where I was. Not that I deserved more, but I deserved the same as them. People are funny with these kinds of things. I think some people get it in their head that they’re gonna treat you one way, and without even realizing it will treat you like you’re not capable of doing things yourself. And that was something that I knew going in, like you said, from situations that I had been in in the past. Part of me doesn’t even really get fazed by those kinds of things at this point in my life, because I’ve seen it so often that I just kind of ignore it almost. I just do my thing and go about my life as I would.

Q. Did you go into Survivor thinking your level of fitness would be a definite advantage?

I did. Being a trained athlete and knowing that my physical fitness level was fairly good, I did think I would have an advantage physically, I think more because I know what it’s like to push yourself. When you have nothing left, you can keep going. When you hit that wall in the marathon, you still have something left and you can keep going. I think that kind of mental discipline is what I figured would get me through, moreso than I think the physical fitness part. Almost less physically and more mentally I thought I was really prepared for the situation -- you know, having no food, having those kinds of difficult situations.

Q. What would you do with a million dollars if you won it?

Probably donate some of it to Food For The Poor, (which) my dad was working with, and then pay off school loans.

Q. Speaking of your father, I was really sorry to hear that you lost him earlier this year. Looking back on the past eight months, how would you say your life perspective has changed having had a little time to grieve and reflect?

I guess day-to-day, my perspective hasn’t changed dramatically. I just look at I think enjoying everything in your life -- even the worst moments -- as much as you can, and I think I took that to "Survivor" with me. That knowing that you just don’t know what the future’s gonna hold, and making the most of what you have right now. I think that was really an important lesson for me, and just kind of a change in my perspective on life. It’s also cherishing the relationships that you have in your life, which when you’re in an environment where you’re not necessarily friends with everyone and you’re away from the people that are important to you, it kind of makes you realize how important those people are. And so that was a great thing when I came home. It was a reminder of what my family and friends mean to me, and I can really make sure that they know that. Unfortunately, with how unexpected my dad’s death was, I didn’t really get that chance to say goodbye and really make sure he knew how I felt. I mean, I think that he knew I loved him and everything, but not getting that chance to say goodbye is a very hard thing, and so it was just a reminder of (the fact that) you really can’t go about life alone. And that is definitely something you learn in “Survivor,” too -- you rely on other people, and you have to have a connection with other people, and so making sure you make the most of that.


UNC said...

I can't wait to see this season of Survivor so that I can root for her! Go Kelly!