Noelle Lambert has long been a survivor. Now she’s playing one on TV.
After losing a leg in 2016, the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic sprinter hopes to be the first person with a prosthetic leg to win CBS’s long-running hit “Survivor.” Season 43 of the Emmy-winning reality show premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m.
Of the 646 contestants over the course of 22 years, the Manchester, N.H., resident becomes the first above-the-knee amputee to compete. Two previous contestants were below-the-knee amputees.
“I wanted to represent the amputee and disability community in a really positive way,” says Lambert, 25, in a phone interview. “I wanted to show the world that, yes, I have a disability, yes, I’m an amputee — but that doesn’t mean I’m incapable of doing things.”
Six years ago, Lambert was a standout on UMass Lowell’s Division I lacrosse team when her left leg was severed in a moped accident on Martha’s Vineyard.
She was determined to get back on the field. After grueling physical therapy to learn to walk, then run, then play lacrosse (and score) on a prosthesis — Lambert switched to track. She qualified for Tokyo 2020 as a 100-meter sprinter, by setting an American record at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai. In Tokyo, she placed sixth in her division while demolishing her own national record in the process — from 16.31 to 15.97 seconds.
After snowboarding for the first time in her life in March 2021, she debuted internationally at the 2021 Europa Cup, and eventually made the world championship para-snowboard team.
All this grit explains why Lambert’s mom has long thought her daughter has what it takes to compete on “Survivor.”
“My mom has never missed an episode, and has been saying for years I needed to try to get on it,” says Lambert.
A “diehard fan” of the show since she was 10, Lambert had never seen an above-the-knee amputee on the show. So “I didn’t have confidence to apply — somebody had to reach out to me.”
At the Tokyo Games, her phone pinged with a direct message “from the head casting director asking if I’ve ever thought about being on the show,” she says. “I thought it was spam.”
But he’d sent a number. She called it. Not spam.
Still, she had to audition. After submitting her tape, she was snowboarding in the Netherlands in November when she got a FaceTime request from show host Jeff Probst. (“One of the [audition] steps is Jeff Probst just FaceTimes you randomly and you have to have a conversation with him.”)
Then in February, during a blizzard back home in New Hampshire, she got a call from the show’s casting director. “He said, ‘You want to leave the blizzard and go to Fiji for season 43 of “Survivor”?’ I instantly started to panic.”
Filming starts soon after contestants get the casting call so they don’t have much time to prepare, Lambert explains.
To ready herself, she pored over articles and interviews with former contestants and binge-watched “Survivor” — but Lambert also realized things would be different for her.
“I’d lay awake at night thinking: How am I actually going to do this? I’m the first above-knee amputee. There’s been two below-knee amputees — but the two are very different. Above-knee amputees are a lot more high-maintenance. I knew I needed to prove myself from the very first challenge.”
Plus, there’s the whole getting-voted-off-the-island thing. Among the 18 castaways in Wednesday night’s two-hour premiere is another with New England ties: Jeanine Zheng, 24, a South Hamilton native now living in San Francisco.
“Stepping up on that beach, I was thinking, ‘Everyone’s looking at me right now. I have to prove that I’m a person they want to keep around,’ ” Lambert says. “On top of my physical game, my social game needed to be perfection.”
She brought her everyday walking/swimming leg, as well as her running blade, but was scared “something was going to happen — my leg was going to fall off during a challenge, or I wasn’t going to be able to do a certain thing right and would cost my tribe. Those were the things I struggled with.”
While she can’t give away details of the season, obviously, she hopes her mere presence on “Survivor” helps others.
“I wanted to represent the amputee community and the disability community in a positive way,” she says, and to show other amputees “if I can do this, they can, too.”
She’s already helped the community in other ways: Lambert founded the Born to Run Foundation, which gives para-athletes athletic prostheses. (One of its 21 recipients, a brewer and Boston Marathon para-runner, created a beer in the foundation’s honor.) A watch party Wednesday night at High Street Place food hall in Boston will raise money for the charity. The event is open to the public, with a suggested donation of $25. All proceeds will benefit the Born to Run Foundation.
As the premiere finally arrives, “I’m just excited to be able to watch it,” Lambert says. “You can’t talk about [the season], so it felt like a dream for a while.” Even her mom was kept out of the loop. “It’s killing her. I’m probably going to be watching her face and then the TV screen.”
On: CBS, Wednesday at 8 p.m.
Lauren Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @laurendaley1.