There are no 40-foot anacondas in Ellicott City, no alligators, piranhas or huge floods (recently) but there might be something unexpectedly rugged about the suburban town: Two men who grew up there have been chosen to brave such dangers in the Amazon for this season of the Survivor television show.
When the show premieres at 8 o'clock tonight on the CBS network, Marylanders can root for hometown contestants Ryan Aiken, who lives in Ellicott City, and Dave Johnson, who grew up there before moving to Pasadena, Calif.
"It's shell shock" to find yourself in the Amazon, said Aiken in a publicity video for the show. He is a model and actor who graduated from Mount Hebron High School in 1997 and attended Howard Community College.
Aiken said people watching at home may have strong opinions about the contestants' survival skills, but, he said, "It's completely different when you're out here."
Johnson, a self-described rocket scientist who works at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, was raised in Ellicott City and was a member of the Centennial High School class of 1997. He graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2001.
In his taped segment, he said, "I'm not here for the audience, I'm not here for the fame. ... I'm here for the adventure."
"We were quite surprised to find two individuals from Ellicott City who we felt so strong about participating in the same series," said Colleen Sullivan, a spokeswoman for CBS.
Both men are prohibited from talking to the media until their fate is revealed on the show. But their taped statements and biographies show that they feel they have what it takes to survive in the South American wilderness.
To take home a $1 million prize, they will also have to survive the show's scheming and back-stabbing by 16 contestants, who vote on who goes and who stays.
"The new twist to this Survivor is dividing the teams, men vs. women," said Sullivan. "The eternal battle of the sexes shall be challenged."
Biographies published on the CBS Web site offer an incomplete but intriguing glimpse into the lives of Aiken and Johnson.
Aiken, who turned 24 yesterday, includes among his acting credits an appearance on the television show Young Americans. He used to be overweight, but got into shape and now enjoys "lifting weights, lacrosse, running, swimming and eating pizza."
If he were a superhero, he would want to be Superman because he could bend things and see into a women's locker room. He does not have a favorite flower because "that's a girl question," but he likes the scents of certain women's perfumes, incense and clean underwear.
He likes professional wrestling, the Left Behind series of books and any music but country.
Johnson, 24, describes himself in his bio as "spontaneous, logical and omnipresent." He enjoys body surfing in Orange County, Calif., rock climbing and drinking beer. He said he would spend the prize money on a new car and (it's unclear if he is joking) his own beef jerky company.
Johnson chose James Bond as his ideal superhero, soccer and pole vaulting as his favorite sports and the Baltimore Ravens and the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer club as his favorite sports teams. He likes authors Joseph Heller and Ayn Rand, Frisbee golf and any music but country.
Early signs show Aiken leaning on his charisma in the battle to be the last "survivor."
"I'd say I have a lot of character," Aiken said in his taped interview. "I'm definitely one in a million. Not to sound conceited or cliche ... it's definitely true."
"I can be put in a room with anybody and get along," Aiken said, but he noted his strategy is to avoid doing all the talking.
"He's competitive," said his mother, Karen Aiken. "You would have to be competitive. ... You have to have a type of personality for this, and love the camera."
Johnson feels confident he will fit in with the other contestants, but he is also hoping his outdoor experience and his intelligence will come in handy.
Johnson has always had an aptitude for math and science, said his mother, Bonnie Johnson. "I think he's always been kind of focused on wanting to do something in space exploration."
But Dave Johnson has also been eager to explore the Earth. He grew up hiking, biking, backpacking and skiing, partly because his parents always liked to do those things. He spent one summer in Nepal on a research project and biked across the United States with three friends.
An appearance on Survivor "seemed logical for him now," said Scott Johnson, a high school friend who is not related. "It is like a natural progression," after Dave's other adventures.
"He's very athletic ... always up for adventure," said Scott Johnson, who lives in Greenbelt and is a financial analyst at Lockheed Martin. "He's very personable, very outgoing. In that sense, I think he would do well."
"I'm positive [his motivation for being on Survivor] was just the opportunity to go someplace and be in the wild and face the challenges," said Bonnie Johnson who lives with Dave's father, Ramsey, in Ellicott City
Karen and Vincent Aiken Jr. reside in Ellicott City as well, and Thursday nights will find both families in front of their televisions.
They could be joined by more than 21 million viewers, if the numbers from the previous Survivor, held in Thailand, are any indication.
"When it's time for Survivor, I'm home," said Karen Aiken, a big fan of the show, who, along with her friend, encouraged Ryan to apply for the show.
"Whether he was on it or not, I would watch it, she said. "It is just a bonus he happens to be on."