To win Survivor: Fiji's $1 million prize, Earl Cole withstood the brutal sun, days of isolation on Exile Island and plenty of snakes (yes, the real kind, not just ones named Dreamz). But that TV-style torture hardly registered for the 36-year-old Santa Monica ad executive, whose childhood was marked by Legg-Calve-Perthes disease—a painful, degenerative hip condition that can lead to osteoarthritis. "Survivor did not compare to that," says Cole, who contracted the disease when he was 7 and was forced to use a wheelchair, crutches and an A-frame cast bound at his ankles. "It was tough. I couldn't play with the other kids; I couldn't run and jump. I just had to watch."

Getting around his home in Kansas City, Kans., was so difficult that his mom, JoAnn Kendall, a single parent and Social Security administrator, had to carry him up and down stairs. Immobilized, he also spent two years of grade school at home, where his one-on-one time with a tutor nurtured his love of science, math and the arts. "It made me develop my mind more," says Cole. "And you learn to have a lot of patience." That lesson paid off. After several years of physical therapy, his joints healed to the point that he needed only crutches. Then, his eureka moment at age 13: "I was totally Forrest Gump—all of a sudden, I could run," says Cole. "And I was faster than the other kids! Then I was running around, trying to make up for lost time." Honing his newfound athleticism, Cole played guard for his high school basketball team. He also found time to excel at the violin and saxophone. Says one of his older sisters, Karen Jones: "[The disease] formed his character. Where there's a will, there's a way—that mind-set parlayed well into the Survivor mentality."

The first African-American male to win Survivor (as well as the first to get all nine of the jury's votes), Cole, who is single, plans to use his big paycheck to take care of his mom's mortgage and his student loans. He'll also pursue more TV work and keep up his friendship with Survivor fan favorite Yau-Man Chan. But, mostly, he wants to settle back into his regular life. "I was already pretty happy," says Cole. "This was a great experience. But even if I didn't win, I would have gone back to being happy."