The morning after his $1 million win – $1.1 million if you include his election by fans as the Sprint "Player of the Season" – Mariano, 35, spoke with PEOPLE about keeping the results a surprise from his wife (and fellow Survivor alum) Amber and the ways he has grown as a player – and a man – over the last ten years.
How did it feel to be named Sole Survivor?
It was relief and it was also pride – a culmination of a lot of years of hard work so I was very excited.
What does your winnings mean for you and your family?
The money will help with the kids and their education, but ultimately for me, it was about getting the win. It's something that I've been trying to do for years. It meant more to me than the money at this point.
What did Amber have to say about it?
It was a surprise! Obviously [I only weighed] 150 lbs. and she knew that my sister had been out for the family visits so she knew I'd gone far but I actually led her to believe that I was voted out at the final four, knowing she wouldn't find out until she was here in New York watching it. So it was nine months of me having to keep this secret and it was a great payoff. She was ecstatic.
Amber was pregnant with your second daughter while you were gone. Did she give you a hard time about being away?
No, no, not all. My wife's been through it. She's won the game. She knows what it means to get the call and she also knows who I am and my competitive nature. She was the one that encouraged me to go out there to try again. Amber has been nothing but supportive. I'm a lucky guy in that respect.
Host Jeff Probst said you played the best game he's ever seen. Do you think anyone could have beaten you?
Absolutely. Had I not ended up in the final with the exact two people that I ended up with I wouldn't have won. Anybody who comes back from Redemption Island one hundred percent is going to win. If any of the Zapatera people came back, Mike in particular, guaranteed to win. It had to happen exactly the way it happened in order for me to get the votes that I got.
How have you changed since you played Survivor: Marquesas in 2002?
I was 25 years old when I first played this game. I was a single kid from Boston working construction. In that time I've gotten married. I have two kids now [Lucia Rose, 1, and Carina Rose, 5 months]. I have a different perspective on life. I've basically grown up in the last ten years and it's allowed me to have a new perspective on the game – how to deal with people in the social aspect of the game, because I've learned that Survivor is a social game more than it is anything else.
Last night Russell left the door open to come back for a fourth season like you did. Do you think he could finally win?
I don't understand how he could come back a third time and think we was going to play the same game. You have to adapt in this game and I think it would be the exact same scenario for Russell again if he doesn't get some space and separation. He's played three times in a year-and-a-half. I've played four times, but over the course of ten years.
You're appearing on a new show for History, Around the World in 80 Ways. Amber's letting you go off again?
She loves who I am and she knows that I'm just a junkie for that adrenaline and that adventure. I wouldn't do it without her okay first.