Even for her wedding day, Survivor: Palau and Guatemala star Stephenie LaGrossa had an immunity challenge, she tells PEOPLE in its new issue.
Awakened by a stomachache at 3 a.m., “I thought it was nerves, but the whole day I was nauseous,” says LaGrossa, who exchanged traditional Catholic vows with her longtime boyfriend, high school history teacher Michael Ward, on July 7.
During the reception at McLoone’s Pier House in Long Branch, N.J., LaGrossa, 26, discreetly popped Tums and sipped ginger ale before finally discovering a cure-all. “I just kept dancing because it would make me forget about it,” says the bride, who boogied in a custom-made antique white Peter Langner gown. “There were times I would have to run to the bathroom, but other than that I was fine.”
The wedding itself took place in Seaside Heights, N.J., the Jersey Shore town where LaGrossa and Ward, 33, first met when she was vacationing with her family and he was working as a lifeguard.
After eight years of dating, Ward proposed on Christmas Eve last year. “We’ve always been really close. But I met him so young that I was in no rush to get married, and even though he’s six years older, neither was he,” says LaGrossa, who credits Survivor with pushing them toward the alter: “Absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder.”
Fittingly, their wedding had a beach theme, with the motto “Life’s a Beach” printed on fans, drink stirrers and candles. “We’re huge beach people,” LaGrossa says. “He loves to surf. I love the beach. We wanted to definitely have something on the beach.”
LaGrossa, a former pharmaceutical sales rep who now models and makes TV and personal appearances, grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia and now lives in Toms River, N.J.
She was a fan favorite on 2005’s Survivor: Palau, in which she outlasted every one of her Ulong tribemates and even fended for herself in their desolate camp. But when she joined the competing Koror tribe, she was voted off the island.
Later that year, she competed again on Survivor: Guatemala, a reunion show in which she went up against other competitors from previous seasons. She made it to the final two, but ultimately lost the $1 million prize to Danni Boatwright, a Kansas beauty queen.
While on Palau, she received a romantic – and funny – letter from Ward. “My boyfriend kissed his letter with, I think, eye shadow he found at my house, because it was orange!” she told PEOPLE. “He wrote, ‘Here’s a kiss from me to you with your own lipstick – or at least I think it’s lipstick.’ I was laughing so hard!”
And while eight Survivor castaways attended their nuptials (including Rafe Judkins and Palau winner Tom Westman) and wedding planner Laura Mastriano added tribal touches such as tiki torches to the cocktail hour, the honeymoon in Bali will not resemble the reality competition. “We’re not roughing it one bit!” says Ward. “We’re taking all the fun, leisure and pampering that you can possibly get.”