On September 23, 2015, CBS premiered the 31st season of Survivor. Titled Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance, it brings back fan faves from past seasons so they can have another shot at the $1 million prize. One of the returning contestants is a taekwondo teacher named Yung “Woo” Hwang. This story, which we ran after his first appearance on Survivor, will explain why he’s being given a second chance.
How much is your integrity worth? It’s a question few us will have to answer — and one even fewer will be forced to face in front of 10 million viewers. Martial arts instructor Yung “Woo” Hwang has a clue about his own price: One million dollars is not enough.
In the finale of Survivor: Cagayan, Woo became a guaranteed finalist when he won the last immunity challenge. That meant he could choose his opponent at the Final Tribal Council, where the winner would go home a millionaire. Woo selected ultra-aggressive New Jersey police officer Tony Vlachos over California attorney Kass McQuillen, who was universally considered an easier opponent. Vlachos went on to win and claim the seven-figure prize. At the Survivor reunion show, host Jeff Probst asked the contestants if they would have voted for Woo had he faced McQuillen. The majority said they would have given Woo the nod — and the money.
It can’t be easy to swallow a million-dollar pill of hindsight and second guesses, but Woo has accepted it like the weather. After all, in his mind, there was only one path to take.
“A lot of my decision was based on my way of living,” Woo said. “Growing up in taekwondo, my father always stressed that in order to be the best, you have to go up against the best.
“My decision to take Tony was in the same respect: He played a great game, and I thought I had a 50-50 shot at beating him even though he was one of the stronger players of the season. I thought, If I could take someone like Tony and manage to beat him, how wonderful that would be? If not, I can walk away with my head held high because I lost against the best.”
A sixth-degree black belt, Woo, 30, is the son of Chi Sung Hwang, a ninth-degree grandmaster and the owner of Hwang’s Martial Arts in Massillon, Ohio. Woo began lessons at age 3 and never stopped. Going into Survivor, he knew his years of training and superior balance, agility and coordination would allow him to surmount obstacles and win immunity challenges. The years on the mats paid off for the ultra-likable Woo, but not because of his wicked spinning crescent kick. His genuine people skills resonated with the audience, and he became one of the most well-liked competitors in the history of the show.
“I have been training adults since I was 13, so my ability to interact and socialize with all age groups comes naturally,” Woo said. “A lot of my social skills came from emulating my father. When he would speak, people would listen. I loved how he was able to gain the respect and attention of whoever he was speaking to.”
Since returning home, Woo has focused on two things: building his business and rebuilding his body. The 5-foot-9-inch martial arts instructor and surfing coach entered Survivor at a lean 170 pounds, with etched abdominals. He finished the season at a gaunt 140 pounds. After the show wrapped, Woo immediately got back in the weight room and resumed surfing to reclaim his lost muscle tissue. It took two months for his body to get back to full strength and his digestion to return to normal — although he’s still 8 pounds lighter than when he began the show.
Promoting his athletic training facility and martial arts studio — HB Academy in Huntington Beach, California — has been a bit easier. After all, having 10 million people watch you give up $1 million in favor of your integrity is priceless in terms of marketing.
“The positive feedback I have received from social media and people on the streets has made me feel like a million bucks,” Woo said.
Don’t be surprised if you see Woo on the screen again. Like many martial artists, he grew up idolizing Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Besides taekwondo, Woo has trained in wushu, capoeira, muay Thai and various weapon styles, and he believes his skill set would translate beautifully to the screen. He’s spent the past few years studying tricking, the hybrid form of martial arts and acrobatics popularized by Travis Wong. Tricking, Woo said, might be how he follows the path of another one of his heroes: prolific actor/stuntman and fellow taekwondo practitioner Simon Rhee.
“Simon works full time as a martial arts instructor and is a full-time stuntman and action actor,” Woo said. “He is living the life I aspire to have one day.”
Even if Woo breaks into show business, he’ll most likely continue to be hounded by the question he hears everywhere he goes: Does he wish he chose differently in the Survivor finale? In reality, his choice seems to bother his formidable fan base more than Woo himself, who genuinely has no regrets.
“After the show, my father and my senior instructors called and thanked me,” he said. “As a dedicated student of martial arts, you know that you don’t live for yourself. You represent a larger body. If you are affiliated with Hwang’s Martial Arts, you know that when you go out in public, your demeanor, etiquette and conduct reflect our school. Even though I knew Survivor was a game of lies and manipulations, I had to be a figure of inspiration. I was representing more than myself.”
(Photos Courtesy of Yung “Woo” Hwang)