From his first days on the island, Survivor: Palau winner Tom Westman seemed unstoppable. Tough, smart and part of a solid alliance (with dolphin trainer Ian Rosenberger and advertising exec Katie Gallagher), he was a threat – and his tribemates knew it. The only problem: the 41-year-old firefighter triumphed at one immunity challenge after another. And for the show’s live finale on May 15, the jury of his ousted peers chose Tom over Katie, in a near-unanimous vote, to win the $1 million prize. Westman, who lives in Sayville, N.Y., with his wife, Bernadette, 37, a nurse, and children Meghan, 9, Declan, 7, and Conor, 5, talked to PEOPLE about the surprising friendships of Palau, practical jokes and his personal hero.
Were you surprised you became such good friends with Katie and Ian?
If you had asked me before the game, I would have said there’s no way. That’s not what I’m there for. But the first night we were sitting around giggling like summer camp, I realized there’s no avoiding it. It’s funny, when you get to your forties, you’re not really taking applications anymore – but then you go through something like this and all of a sudden, you’re a sidekick to a 6’8″ dolphin trainer.
How impressed are your kids that you won?
To them, I’m just Dad, so it’s no big thing, but I am hearing from their teachers all the stuff they talk about at school – “Dad did this” and “Katie came over to visit and this is the flower she gave me to wear on my hat.” I have my young boys trained so when I say, “Survivor Tom,” they say, “He’s the bomb!” They’re my performing midgets! I show them a magazine article and they’re like, “I know, Dad, Survivor, I know! You’re on Survivor, we know!”
How about your fellow firefighters?
In the firehouse, if you’re not the target of a good-natured ribbing, you’re not part of the group. They’ve redecorated the kitchen of the firehouse – they filled it with sand, cargo netting, palm trees and plastic rats. They had T-shirts made up of me in a loincloth with a machete. They’ve been having a ball with this.
How long did it take you to recover, health-wise?
I bashed my toe up pretty good, and I was out of work for a little while with that, so I put a little weight back on. Mentally, my wife has been so patient with me getting back into the groove – although one day she walked in the kitchen the kids were flinging food at each other and I’m just standing there. She was like, “All right, Tom, it’s time for you to get re-engaged!”
Was it hard not telling people how far you made it?
No, it was actually fun. I intentionally left red herrings where I’d say, “This happened at Loser Lodge” or something. And by Bernadette not letting me tell her, she made sure I damn well better not tell anyone else.
You’ve said your daughter Meghan is your hero. She lost her hearing from meningitis when she was 2, then got a cochlear implant. How is she now?
Meghan is one of the miracle stories: Her level of deafness was so profound that she couldn’t hear a train going by, but now she functions in a mainstream classroom in third grade. It will be nice to let Meghan shine now through this whole thing.