'Survivor' 34 winner Sarah Lacina played like a criminal and earned that prize money

ByHannah Shapiro

Hannah Shapiro was a runner-up on Survivor season 33: Millennials vs. Gen X. You can follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahLilNessen

We have a winner for Survivor: Game Changers: Sarah Lacina, the cop who played like a criminal.

There's nothing more satisfying than a smart, strategic player winning a season of Survivor. The game has evolved over the seasons, producing new ways of thinking and playing. Some seasons, the strategic powerhouse falls short and can't get to the end. Other seasons — think Kaoh Rong — the strategic winner faces a jury of angry, bitter or just straight-up blind folks. This season, one of the top strategists got to the end and took the money when she got there.

Sarah Lacina entered Game Changers with many fans scratching their heads, trying to figure out why she was chosen. But the hardworking midwestern police officer took a cue from her first season's winner, fellow cop Tony Vlachos, and played the best game of all. She played dirty when she had to. She built a reputation as a trustworthy confidant and outwitted her fellow castmates while convincing them she was their best friend. Seeing a strategic player take the crown is amazing on it own. Seeing an aggressive strategic lady take it breaks a pattern of strategic women being overlooked or misrepresented. Lacina's win is, in many ways, game-changing.

Sarah first played Survivor on Survivor 28: Cagayan, where she became the first member of the jury. There, she watched as eventual winner Tony lied, flipped and manipulated all his fellow players. That season, her word was her bond. This time around she decided to take some lessons from Tony and be the game-changer this season needed. 

Let's take a look back at the choices that led to Sarah Lacina holding a million-dollar check.

She can read an expired license from a mile away


Attention to detail gave Sarah a leg up in the game. (Attention to hair detail gave Sarah her amazing braids all season, but that's another story.)

Police officers need a keen eye for details, and this season, Sarah proved why she's a pro. In the game, Sarah spotted the vote-stealing advantage positioned far away on the sit-out bench. The advantage ended up having a huge impact on the game.

"Paying attention to detail is how my playing the game got me here," she tells the jury in the finale.

Sarah was everyone's BFF


Sarah's ability to maneuver and flop-flop the entire game worked because she successfully built close relationships with players. Every person on the island thought Sarah was their person and trusted her with all their secrets. Even when Sarah blindsided someone with a vote, she still found herself in their good graces. Only when players found themselves at Ponderosa dud they really put the pieces together. What's more important than immunity necklaces? Trust. Sarah made people feel comfortable — like they could beat her at the end.

Zeke Smith's jacket


I'm about to give away a huge Survivor secret. If you wear Zeke Smith's jacket, you automatically make it to the final three. I wore Zeke's jacket on Survivor 33: Millennials vs. Gen X, and while I ended up losing a million dollars on national television, the jacket still got me to the end. See, Zeke's jacket has mystical powers that allow the wearer to get to final tribal council without being targeted as a strategic force. It's true.

What is also true is that Zeke became quite the jury advocate for his former ally. Zeke saw Sarah's game for what it was, but he also saw that folks were upset and riddled with personal hurt. Zeke, wanting the best player to win, goes to bat for Sarah at the final tribal council. Even though she voted him out — and kept his jacket. 

Cop who played like a criminal


Sarah said in episode one that she was going to play like a "criminal." She was willing to lie, cheat, steal and blindside her way to the end. Perhaps it was watching Tony win that way, or perhaps she just wanted to have some villain fun this time — but when she got to Westworld, she put on her black hat. What makes Sarah great is that she fully owns her "silent killer" persona. She's not apologizing or backing away from playing the game hard and without holding her back.

Sarah's reputation going into the season was that she "stuck to her word." While many players' reptutations sunk them this season, her ability to change her game actually helped her. Her castmates trusted her when they shouldn't have. Sarah was playing for herself and her family, allowing herself to do whatever it took to get where she needed to be.

Sarah evolved into a game-changer


It's all in the title of the season. Sarah became the biggest game-changer in the cast. She was consistently the deciding vote; she swung her allies into a position of power and never just sat on her bum eating rice and chilling out. My favorite aspect of Sarah's game is her unapologetic willingness to play aggressively. Many times, female survivor players are forced to apologize for playing, but Sarah owner her game. She blindsided her close allies: Sierra, Andrea, Zeke ... the list goes on. But she owned up to it when she made a move. I respect that.

Sarah was able to maneuver her allies to take down Brad Culpepper's main alliance of six, while also blindsiding her allies before they turned on her. She took away the power from other folks, controlling most of the merge game.

Why was Sarah respected for an aggressive game when so many females before her weren't? That question will probably be debated in the Survivor history books for years to come. Perhaps it was the the heavily female jury. Perhaps it was her ability to snag a jury advocate. Maybe it was her choice of end buddies. All I can say is I'm both happy and impressed. 

Sarah may not have been the biggest name going into the season, but no one can deny she earned the title of Game Changer. And if you try to deny that Sarah is an actual game-changer she will arrest you.

Mic has ongoing Survivor coverage. Check out our main Survivor hub here.