"She had a very soft and kind side," a friend tells PEOPLE of Massaro. "I am so thankful I was able to see that and know her that way"

By Steve Helling and Adam Carlson
May 17, 2019 09:11 AM
Charles Sykes/REX/Shutterstock

Two years before Ashley Massaro, a former WWE star and Survivor contestant, died suddenly at 39 in New York, she told PEOPLE she was ready for her next adventure.

“I’m always looking for the next cool experiences, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for me next,” she said then. “But I promise you this: It’ll be awesome.”

That was the kind of gusto that had long marked Massaro’s life, in and out of the ring.

In 2007, during her four-year stint with the WWE, Massaro appeared on Survivor: China, the 15th season of the long-running reality show.

There she battled physical illness in her first six days and was the second contestant voted out of the game.

But Peih Gee Law, a fellow contestant that season, tells PEOPLE Massaro “was such a fighter” on Survivor.

“Even though she got sick early on in the game, she still competed with all her heart in the challenges,” Law says. “She brought a really fun energy to camp life. I’m so sorry for this loss to both the Survivor and WWE community.”

Leslie Nease, another Survivor contestant that season, outlasted Massaro but later traveled with her for a month after the two bonded on the show.

Massaro’s passing has left her “devastated,” Nease tells PEOPLE.

“She is so much more than her image,” Nease says. “After we were both voted off we spent hours in deep conversation for several days. She had a very soft and kind side. I am so thankful I was able to see that and know her that way.”

Ashley Massaro
Ashley Massaro

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In its own statement, the WWE shared condolences to Massaro’s family and friends, saying they were “saddened to learn of [her] tragic death.”

Jaime Huffman, a Survivor tribemate and friend, remembered Massaro’s athleticism and buoyant spirit.

In a tribute to PEOPLE, Huffman shared that Massaro’s “smile will be one that I will never forget.

“I don’t think anyone could forget it. I will always laugh a little when I picture us on the jungle floor, shivering, cutting up and wondering what the heck we signed up for. I was so impressed with your athletic ability and most importantly your beautiful soul. To my beautiful friend who was taken too soon, I love you and miss you.”

Massaro performed in the WWE from 2005 to 2008 after winning the WWE’s Diva Search in 2005, which resulted in a one-year, $250,000 contract. She has also worked as a TV and radio host and model.

According to the Los Angeles Times, as a wrestler Massaro “is probably best remembered in wrestling as the valet for tag team champions Paul London and Brian Kendricd and for getting a shot at the WWE women’s title at the 2007 Wrestlemania.” She lost that bout to Melina.

In March, she tweeted about wrestling with the NYWC. “Super pumped n ready to see what I got left in these ole boots of mine!” she wrote then.

Ashley Massaro
Ashley Massaro
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On Wednesday, a day before her death, Massaro tweeted that she had just responded to “a ton of fanmail so you guys should be receiving them soon! Love ya punx.”

Massaro’s cause of death has not been disclosed but it is not being classified as a criminal case, according to police.

Authorities were first called to the wrestler’s home in Suffolk County and she was transported to a nearby hospital where she died on Thursday morning. An autopsy will be performed to determine the cause and manner of death, police told PEOPLE.

No funeral or memorial arrangements have been announced.

Speaking to PEOPLE in 2017, Massaro said, “I’ve been really fortunate to do a lot of different things. I’ve had a lot of adventures that most people don’t get an opportunity to do, and I’m really thankful for that.”