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Community gathers to honor Whitson

Unicoi County celebrated Gavin Whitson’s successful run on “Survivor: Edge of Extinction” with a special event held in downtown Erwin on Friday, May 31. During the event, Whitson, who recently finished in second place on the hit CBS show, signed autographs and posed for photos with fans. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Unicoi County came out to celebrate local celebrity and Survivor contestant Gavin Whitson on Friday, May 31. The Gathering Place in Erwin was filled with excited residents to officially welcome Whitson back to Erwin since his appearance on the hit show, “Survivor: Edge of Extinction.”

Whitson and his wife, Carly Whitson, were on hand to speak to residents and to take photos and sign autographs. While downtown, the Whitsons took time to speak to The Erwin Record about their Survivor experience and what the community support means to them.

“The support I have been shown since the show ended has been amazing,” Gavin, who came in second place on the show, said. “Everyone that has approached me has told me how proud they are, and they think I should have won, which is always nice to hear.”

Carly, who got to join her husband in Fiji and appear on the hit show, also was excited about the experience.

“For me, one of my hopes for Gavin and his experience was that he would make the family visit,” Carly said. “Leading up to the time of going was very stressful on my end because it was a lot of going into the unknown. CBS really left us in the dark, so we never knew what was going on in the game so I didn’t find out I was going for sure until I got a text around 3 a.m. Monday morning for a 9 a.m. flight on the same Monday morning.”

According to Carly, being in Fiji was a once in a lifetime experience.

“My time in Fiji was unbelievable,” she said. “I traveled halfway across the world by myself and that’s something I will never forget, but the highlight of the experience was being able to compete on the family visit challenge with Gavin. That hadn’t happened since season 20 of Survivor, and I was so thankful we were chosen for the reward.”

Carly said that in her short time on the island, she got a full Survivor experience.

“I loved having that extra time with Gavin because I got to see what the true Survivor camp life was like,” Carly added. “I got to see where he slept, the small cups they ate their rice out of. I feel like I got the true survivor experience and I am forever thankful for that.”

Since “Survivor: Edge of Extinction” aired, the Whitsons are learning to adapt to the newfound fame.

“Since I got back from the finale I have been recognized a lot more and I thought it would be the other way around and people would recognize me more while the show was airing,” Gavin said. “Within the Tri-Cities area, I have been recognized everywhere I have been so far, which still feels weird to me.”

Carly also explained what it was like being famous in a small town.

“I think everyone in town already knew who we were, but it is really neat when we are out somewhere and someone recognizes Gavin and then they look at me and say ‘Oh, I saw you also’,” Carly said. “This has happened in places like South Carolina and even Disneyland.”

For the Whitsons, family life is getting back to normal since “Survivor: Edge of Extinction” aired.

“I would say for the most part everything is back to normal outside of the small events Gavin is participating in,” Carly said. “Outside of that, home life is completely back to normal and I am very thankful for that.”

For Carly, the getting back to normal part of life has provided time for reflection.

“The timeline in general from all of these huge events has made the past year fly by and it’s hard to believe now that it’s been a year since we’ve gotten married and we are getting close to the time that I left for Fiji nearly a year ago,” Carly said.

For Gavin, being back has allowed him to pick up where he left off.

“Since I got back from the finale I have been doing the same thing I did last summer and the summer before that,” Gavin said. “I have been running a summer camp, enjoying time with family and eating my weight in ice cream.”

Gavin has found time for a new business opportunity.

“I have started a T-shirt company,” Gavin said. “I am running a small online shop via Etsy called Walt Whitson.”

Like Survivor, opening a T-shirt shop is one of Gavin’s dreams.

“Once I got home from Survivor I realized that I needed to find a new dream and I had also realized I can truly do anything I want as long as I put in the time and effort,” Gavin said. “If there’s one thing I love more than Survivor it’s going on vacations to places like Disney World.” It was trips to Disney World and Gavin’s love of pop culture that inspires his clothing line.

“Being able to chase my dream of being on Survivor inspired me to start making theme park and pop culture inspired T-shirts for people like me to wear on their next vacations,” he said. “I will have a booth at the Apple Festival this year and I am working on some special stuff for it. I think the items I will have at the Apple Festival will really be stuff the community will enjoy.”

Gavin said he still takes pride in representing Erwin.

“I love downtown Erwin right now,” he added. “It is in the best shape I have ever seen it and there are now so many things to do. Once the Capitol Cinema opens back up, I might not ever have to go to Johnson City again.”

Gavin said he has noticed the changes that occurred while he was gone.

“I really can’t believe how much Erwin has changed in such a short amount of time and that just shows how much great leadership we have here and the amount of people here who want to make Erwin a better place for future generations,” he added.

As far as what is next for the Whitsons, they are open for the next great adventure, even if that means another run on Survivor.

“Like most great things in life, there isn’t a plan, like Survivor, so we are just going to enjoy life and see what happens next,” Carly said.

The Whitsons were honored by the community during Friday’s celebration. Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amanda Delp welcomed Gavin and Carly to the event.

“On behalf of the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Directors I want to thank everyone for coming out and to thank Gavin for representing Unicoi County so well on the show, we are still Team Gavin all the way,” Delp said.

Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley agreed with Delp.

“Gavin is one of Erwin’s finest,” Hensley said. “We are so proud of what he has done. He has brought national recognition to Erwin; he has shown the nation what Unicoi County and Erwin are made of.”