'Survivor' Winner Denise Stapley: 'I'm in a Daze'

"I will always be thankful for Survivor," the sex therapist tells PEOPLE

Photo: Nate Beckett/Splash News Online

Denise Stapley shattered Survivor records by being the only player in the show’s 25-season history to go to every tribal council – including the final one, where six of the eight jury members voted to award her the million dollar prize.

Moments after exiting the stage at the Survivor reunion, the 41-year-old sex therapist from Iowa told PEOPLE what she’ll do with her money – and how she got her incredible arms.

Before we talk Survivor, you are shorter than I expected!
I’m 5’2″. Everyone says, “You’re so little.” I’m one of those people who look bigger on TV.

It’s probably because you’re so buff. How did you get those arms?
I love to swim. It’s my recreation and my exercise. I am most comfortable in the water. I loved the water challenges in the Philippines.

But there weren’t many at all!
I know! What’s up with that? There were weather issues so we couldn’t be in the water as much as I would have liked. But you adapt.

You were on a tribe that lost repeatedly. How did you adapt to that?
Just every day, you assess where you are and what you need to do. I was never in real danger because I was aligned with Malcolm. But yes, losing all those challenges was so demoralizing. We lost the first one, and the momentum just want away. On paper, our tribe was as strong as the others, but it just didn’t work out that way in actuality.

You mentioned your alliance with Malcolm, but he was very angry at you when you voted him off.
I made a move. You have to make moves in this game, and I made one to get rid of my biggest threat. Malcolm is great and we are friends, but if you don’t make moves in Survivor, you go home.

How are things between you and Malcolm now?
Just fine, they really are. We will always be friends.

(Malcolm later told PEOPLE, “She’s my jungle mama. If I couldn’t win, I wanted her to win. I love her and we will always be close. Always.”)

So you recognized Lisa Whelchel right away, correct?
Yes, I did. They didn’t show it but I was the one who told Jonathan Penner who she was.

And what was it like competing against her?
You know, she was wonderful – just a nice, great woman. It’s easy to say this because I won, but I really appreciated everyone out there.

Even Abi?
Even Abi. I meant what I said in tribal council. I stand behind the things that I said. But sure, I could have phrased things better.

So what were your strengths in the game?
I can listen to people very well. Pay attention to what they’re saying, and react to them. I’m physically fit, and I was able to work hard around the camp. I also tried to adapt to each situation.

How sure were you that you were going to win?
I had a good idea that I might, but you don’t want to assume. So I just felt cautiously optimistic.

What will you do with the $1 million prize?
I will relax a little bit, take a deep breath and go from there. I’m in a daze right now. My daughter is nine, so I’ll set up college funds and all that. And I will always be thankful for Survivor for this incredible gift of the adventure … and, of course, the million dollars!

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