Tom Westman, 41, beats Ian Rosenberger and Katie Gallagher to become the show's oldest winner

By Carla Hay and Stephen M. Silverman
Updated May 16, 2005 08:00 AM

Tom Westman may have blasted some of the judges on Sunday night’s finale of CBS’s Survivor: Palau as “two-faced backstabbers,” but that didn’t prevent the New York City firefighter, 41, from winning the reality show’s $1 million prize.

Besides the money, which will be presented in a check delivered on Monday’s CBS Early Show, Westman – a 20-yet veteran lieutenant of the FDNY and the oldest victor in the history of the TV game – will receive a bonus: a yellow Chevrolet SSR.

“It feels great to win in your hometown,” says the silver-haired Westman. “New York has been incredible. This morning with the nervous excitement, I woke up early and went for a run in Central Park and had city park workers yelling and cheering, ‘Hey, that’s Tom from Survivor!‘ The emotional support from everybody and the guys in the firehouse has been absolutely incredible.”

Westman kept an alliance with dolphin trainer Ian Rosenberger and ad executive Katie Gallagher and led the Koror tribe to win every immunity challenge, a feat that’s never happened before on Survivor.

“I still have physical effects,” he says of the final immunity challenge, which took 12 hours. “The feeling of numbness in my legs is still there. It was brutal. But my only shot of winning was to win that challenge.”

Explaining how he endured, Westman says, “Anybody who respects how I was playing out there can attribute it to the New York City Fire Department. It’s the mindset and training I’ve had, that you have to finish the job and you have to overcome whatever. I felt that spirit every time we went into a competition. Being a lieutenant in the fire department, you do have younger guys that you have to lead and you have to set an example.”

And the money? Says the married father of three, who says he’s now setting up college funds for his kids: “The $1 million is all about family to me. They were the motivation and they were the ones to sacrifice me being out there. Just to be 41 years old to walk away from the kids and the dog and the mortgage, that was my family’s sacrifice. We couldn’t afford for me to have a midlife crisis, but that’s what I did out there. And for me to come back richer, not just with the experience, but also the actual cash, it’s just unbelievable.”

Next up for the show will be Survivor: Guatemala – The Maya Empire, set among the ruins, host Jeff Probst announced.