FARGO — Holly Hoffman knows what it takes to survive. The Eureka, S.D., native lasted 39 days in the jungles of Nicaragua in 2010, ultimately placing fourth in the reality television program "Survivor: Nicaragua."

Hoffman thought the show was fake before she was selected to compete in the program slated to air its 41st season this fall.

"I had this vision in my head that there's no way they make people go through it. When I got there, I was shocked," she said. "It's the absolute real deal. You live in a jungle. You have to find your own food. You have to build your hut. You have to deal with these people from all walks of life."

But for Hoffman, one of her biggest struggles was that she didn't feel like she fit in with her tribe. In fact, she contemplated quitting the program on the fifth day.

"You have to last 39 days, and I hit day five and I was done," she said.

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One of her tribemates convinced her to stay, and she wound up making it to the final four.

"I had to basically say, 'OK, I need to give myself some grace and I need to play the game,'" she said. "And that's kind of true of the real world. In life, we need to give ourselves grace at times when life is stressful and tell ourselves we can do this."

Hoffman will share her journey, "Never Give Up: The Survivor Way," at the seventh annual Women Connect Celebration sponsored by the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce from 3:30-5 p.m. Tuesday, June 29, at the Delta by Marriott in Fargo. The event will also be livestreamed.

The 'mom' figure

Hoffman grew up in Eureka, S.D., where she was a standout athlete in softball, basketball and track and field. In 1984, the South Dakota Sportswriters Association named her the state's High School Girls Athlete of the Year.

After high school, she attended college at Northern State University in Aberdeen. She returned to Eureka, where she raised three children.

While her kids were growing up, she spent much of her time volunteering as a coach for EAST, the Eureka Area Swim Team club she founded. She admits she initially didn't know a lot about competitive swimming, but her hard work paid off when her two daughters earned full-ride swim scholarships.

"I always say it paid off then. All my volunteer work actually paid off," she said.

Hoffman said it's hard to explain what made her apply to be on "Survivor."

She watched the show for years without any desire to apply, but that changed one night as she sat watching "Survivor: Samoa" in 2009.

"I think it was because all of our children were gone," she said. "That's when I was like 'You know, I wonder what would happen if I were to send in an audition tape?'"

She made a tape, but didn't send it in right away. Hoffman said she had some self-doubt, but family and friends encouraged her, saying, "What's it going to hurt to send it in?"

Hoffman was selected within a year of her application, which is no small feat.

"We had one lady on our season that applied 17 times," she said. "On our season there were over 100,000 people who applied."

When asked why she thinks she was selected, Hoffman said producers viewed her as the "mom figure."

"Even though our season was the old versus young, they said it was the mom figure that attracted them. And then you have to take all these tests at your casting call like a personality test and an IQ test. I'm very Type A personality. They (the producers) said, 'You're either going to drive people crazy or you'll get along well with them.' I think I did both," Hoffman joked.

Holly Hoffman will talk about what she learned as a contestant on "Survivor: Nicaragua" at the Women Connect Celebration Tuesday, June 29, at the Delta by Marriott. Special to The Forum
Holly Hoffman will talk about what she learned as a contestant on "Survivor: Nicaragua" at the Women Connect Celebration Tuesday, June 29, at the Delta by Marriott. Special to The Forum

A 'Survivor's' story

Hoffman said she was approached to share her "Survivor" story soon after her season ended. When she sat down to organize her thoughts, six words came to mind: faith, attitude, determination, confidence, desire and perseverance.

In her speech Tuesday, she'll talk about how she feels those six words describe how she got through "Survivor."

Those six words are also the focus of her first book, "Your Winner Within."

"Just the whole experience itself made me realize in life we're all going to struggle. We're all going to have change. We're all going to be faced with adversity, but it truly is how we move forward and how we continue that matters," Hoffman said.

While she said her message applies to men and women, young and old, she's looking forward to speaking at the Chamber's Women Connect event.

"We put a lot of pressure on ourselves (as women). We don't give ourselves enough grace," she said. "What I really like is how this focuses on the important issues of professional and personal life. That's the work/life balance we need to think about. Usually, as women, we put ourselves in the back of the line. We take care of everybody else. We need to learn to take care of ourselves."

Tickets are $35 for Chamber members and $45 for non-members in advance, and $45 and $55 at the door. For more information or to register, visit fmwfchamber.com.