It was last summer, about a month before taping was set to begin on the newest “Survivor,” when it happened.
Ashley Underwood, 25, of Benton was walking — and texting — when she took one false step and stubbed her foot on the sidewalk.
She broke a toe.
Undeterred by the bad timing, Underwood continued her intense workouts and studying in preparation for the popular TV contest. And she didn’t tell the makers of “Survivor” about her toe, just in case that might jeopardize her spot on the show.
That minor hitch, and Underwood’s determination to press on, is a pretty good indication of what kind of contestant she’ll be when “Survivor: Redemption Island” begins airing Feb. 16 on CBS.
“I want to be the tough girl,” Underwood said Thursday, in her first interview since the announcement last month that she would be on the show.
“I wanted whichever tribe I was on to view me as an asset, someone who would help in the challenges, even though I’m a woman, a young girl. I want them to know I’m a basketball player and that I know how to work hard. I wanted to be the strong, athletic girl and be seen as someone who could really help.”
Underwood, who will turn 26 on Tuesday, is known as a basketball star who was crowned Miss Maine in 2009.
She’ll be among 18 castaways competing for the $1 million prize on “Survivor.” Her rivals will include two former contestants, Russell Hantz and “Boston” Rob Mariano.
The show will have a new twist: Contestants who are voted off the island won’t immediately leave the show but will be exiled to Redemption Island, where they will duel for a chance to return to the game.
The show was filmed on the beaches of Nicaragua during the late summer and early fall last year.
Underwood is a graduate of Cony High School in Augusta and the University of Maine, and topped 1,000 career points for each school’s basketball team. She earned her nursing license and has been a full-time nurse for School Administrative District 49, which serves her hometown of Benton, as well as Albion, Clinton and Fairfield.
She also has been modeling through a Boston-based agency.
On Thursday, Underwood described how she came to be on the show, but she was contractually obligated not to discuss what happened, so the outcome of “Survivor” remains a surprise for viewers.
Underwood said she has always been “a huge fan” of the show and even met the only Mainer to win the show — Bob Crowley of South Portland — at an event while she was Miss Maine. Crowley, she said, inspired her by representing Maine, and they plan to watch some of the show’s episodes together.
Many people told Underwood that she would be a good contestant on the show, she said, and she would nicely shrug it off. But she eventually got interested in joining a TV reality series.
During her time as Miss Maine, Underwood became close friends with Stephanie Smith, who was Miss South Carolina. Smith and Underwood decided to audition together for spots on another CBS reality show, “The Amazing Race.”
Underwood didn’t make it, but Smith did and she appeared on the show last year.
Underwood successfully tried out for “Survivor,” which she found to be a better fit anyway. It was an easy decision.
“I’m personally more cut out for ‘Survivor.’ I love to compete, and really ‘Survivor’ is the ultimate adventure and ultimate challenge,” she said. “I’ve always been kind of a thrill seeker.”
To prepare for “Survivor,” Underwood went back to school.
That meant workouts in the gym and getting into “really good shape.” Her goal was to gain muscle and “bulk up” so she would unmistakably be the “tough athletic girl.”
“Frankly, I didn’t want to be in a bikini on national television,” she said, her voice trailing off. “You want to look good.”
She also aimed to acclimate herself to the sweltering temperatures of Nicaragua by regularly hydrating herself, going to the sauna and even cranking up the heat while driving in her car.
Underwood also refreshed her memory on outdoor skills — starting a fire, fishing, withstanding the elements — much of which she learned from her parents, Charles and Theresa Underwood of Benton. Growing up on the family farm helped, too, and she knew she’d be comfortable in the show’s setting.
There was also mental preparation.
“It felt like being back in college,” she said. “In basketball, we used to study film, and honestly that’s what I did here. I watched so many past seasons, especially the recent ones, really studying people’s personalities, how people dealt with certain situations, and figuring out: How am I my own person?”
Faith and family helped, too. Underwood said she prayed every day and was constantly supported by her parents and friends.
“Honestly, going through Division I basketball and pageantry — all of that preparation literally led me to this point, and I really felt mentally prepared,” she said.
But all of the preparation in the world wouldn’t be enough, Underwood said, because the show involves many twists. That’s why she resolved to just “be myself as much as I could.”
“I know that sounds hard to do in a game like ‘Survivor,’ to be as forthcoming and honest as possible, but I really wanted to try to do that. I’m a Maine girl, born and raised.”
Underwood said that since the network confirmed her appearance on the show, she has received many supportive calls and messages, and “it kind of leaves me speechless.”
“I’ve gotten so much support from, really, people across the state, and that’s why I love Maine so much,” Underwood said. “People from Maine care about what you’re doing.”