by Lisa Gregory, photography by Nikola Tzenov
Westminster’s Gabrielle Balassone Shines on the Discovery Channel’s Survivalist Series
Sometimes while Gabrielle Balassone is asleep in her warm bed in the home she shares with her husband and three children, she will find herself suddenly jerking awake with her heart pounding.
“I sit up, and think, ‘Did my fire go out?’” she says.
For those brief seconds Balassone is back in the great outdoors, trying to survive by keeping her self-made fire alive in the deep of night. “Fire is one of the pillars of survival,” she says.
As a four-time participant with Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid series, including Naked and Afraid XL and Naked and Afraid XL: Frozen, Balassone, a Westminster resident, knows about survival. From the jungles to the mountains, she has braved mosquito bites from head to foot, a potentially fatal encounter with a viper and the risk of frostbite — all in the name of survival. And with no food, no water, no clothing and no shelter.
“It’s invigorating,” she says of her Naked and Afraid adventures, which have taken her to South Africa, Mississippi, the Philippines and Montana. “The transformation of who you are before and who you are after is so profound. You understand what you’re made of and what you as a human can accomplish.”
In doing so, Balassone, with her confident demeanor and focused energy, has become much-loved by audiences — including those in her own hometown. “I go into Wal-Mart and people recognize me,” she says.
But it is the young girls that she enjoys meeting the most. She hopes to provide an example of fortitude and determination regardless of one’s sex. Apparently, the message is being received.
“I was at Panera one day having lunch with my husband, and a Girl Scout Troop was there,” she says of one recent encounter. “Every single one came up to me and wanted a photo.”
Balassone’s love of nature began when she herself was a girl. Her father, a Vietnam veteran, nurtured and encouraged his daughter’s passion for the outdoors as well as her can-do attitude. “I spent countless hours in the woods with him hiking, fishing, shelter building and catching critters,” she says. “I was simply a country girl who enjoyed spending time barefoot, eating wild berries and stalking snakes in the creeks of Carroll County.”
And she is instilling that love of nature in her own three young sons. Playtime for her boys is “catching bugs and building shelters,” she says. In fact, the youngest just celebrated his second birthday with his first camping trip. “We wanted to start him young,” she says.
After graduating from Winters Mill High School in 2007, Balassone, who currently works as a lawyer with a defense contractor, would go on to earn degrees from Carroll Community College, the University of Baltimore and the University of Baltimore School of Law. And while she focused on business and psychology classes, she also “took a ton of undergraduate biology courses and ecology courses and geology courses,” she says. Perhaps an inkling of what was to come, she spent a working holiday on a commercial fishing ship on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia before returning home to enter law school.
It was while studying one night as a law student she happened upon an episode of Naked and Afraid. As she tells it, “I had poured myself a glass of wine and was watching and thought to myself, ‘I can do that.”
By the second glass of wine, she had applied for the show. She heard back 24 hours later.
Her first Naked and Afraid experience would be a 14-day challenge in South Africa. Her partner, a young man, quit after only five days. In one memorable scene, he vomits after Balassone spears some frogs, cooks them over an open fire and eats them whole. “You waste nothing because every single part of that animal is nutritious,” says Balassone, who has gone as many as four days during challenges without a single morsel of food and preps for challenges by going on what she calls the Milkshake Diet.
With the young man’s exit, Balassone was left alone. She describes that first Naked and Afraid as the hardest. “It was freezing at night,” says Balassone. “Bitter, bitter cold.”
Then there were the nosy neighbors. “The baboons were curious about the humans living in their territory,” she says. “The entire troop would watch us and gradually come closer and closer to our location. Sometimes, they would holler or yawn to expose their teeth to show their dominance. With four-inch canine teeth, they were definitely intimidating.”
Gabrielle Balassone is a four-time participant with Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid series. She has braved elements from hot to cold and survived a potentially fatal encounter with a viper. Photos Courtesy: Discovery Channel.
However, “The best part of them being close by was I could see where they foraged to see if they left anything behind.”
She made it through and decided she wanted to do it again. “My husband was initially apprehensive about me going out there,” she says, “but he now encourages me. He sees the change in me when I return.”
Not that she doesn’t miss the civilized world. “Having water at the tip of my fingers,” she says. “Out of a faucet. Not having to boil it or purify it or walk a quarter-mile to go find it somewhere.”
Water is all the more appreciated when she completes a challenge and takes up to three showers in a single day to get her hair and body clean.
Her second Naked and Afraid adventure found her in the swamps of Mississippi with snakes and alligators. Again, she had a male counterpart. He lasted a bit longer than the first one but still left on day seven. “I think he thought it was going to be like camping,” she says. She would again be alone — this time for 14 days. “I’d already completed a challenge alone,” she says. “I knew I could do it. The more the pressure builds or the more difficult the situation, I feel like I become more hyper-focused and more determined.”
This time around she battled relentless rain. “I felt like I was growing mold on my skin,” she says. And then there were the bugs. Mosquitoes, more precisely. She was completely covered in bites. To this day she admits to a real aversion to tiny bloodsuckers. “I was traumatized,” she says.
Yet Balassone kept coming back. She traveled to the Philippines for a 40-day challenge as one of 12 elite survivalists, where she faced shark-infested waters and the dense jungle with all its inhabitants. It was in the jungle that she had a close call with a pit viper, a highly venomous snake.
“The thing about vipers is that they sit and wait,” says Balassone. “They blend perfectly in their ecosystem.”
The one that Balassone came across was doing just that. “This sucker was sitting on a vine in front of me about knee-high,” she says. “Had I not seen him and just stepped over that vine, he would have caught me in the leg, and I would have had to be evacuated and get antivenom and hopefully make it through.”
In true Balassone fashion, however, instead of the viper getting her, she got it. “I caught it and butchered and ate it,” she says.
Her most recent adventure was a bit different from her prior ones. She went to Montana, into the wind-swept and snow-covered Rocky Mountains and 20-degree weather. And was once again one of 12 elite competitors. “We were dropped into one of the most punishing locations ever attempted in the franchise,” she says, adding, “I hate the cold. I thought this is going to be a real challenge for me, and maybe this will be the first time I might tap [out.]”
But Balassone had a plan, and it involved her sewing skills. “As a kid I sewed little purses and stuff with my mom,” she says. “So I knew general stitches. I had a fishing line and fishing hooks, and I could sew anything.”
With the animal pelts provided to them, she did just that. She even made shoes for herself and the members of her group. “Other groups were out there walking around with flip-flops and barefooted,” she says. “People lost parts of their toes from frostbite. Those shoes made all the difference for us.”
To date Balassone has survived a total of 89 days in the wilderness, 23 of those days alone. It’s not surprising then that she continues to be asked to return to Naked and Afraid. But after her much-loved father became ill and passed away, she stepped back from the competition temporarily, even though she was begged to compete. As one television executive told her, “I cannot say I have the best survivalist out there if you don’t come.”
At some point she is indeed planning to return. “I would do this every year of my life for the rest of my life.” she says.
“Life is short. You only have one chance here. I’m going to try and do as many things and have as many experiences as I can and just love the entirety of what life has to offer.”