She survived the Vietnam War. Now she’s won ‘Squid Game’

She survived the Vietnam War. Now she’s won ‘Squid Game’She survived the Vietnam War. Now she’s won ‘Squid Game’
via Netflix, @iammai287 / Instagram
Of 456 competitors, one stood out to win the largest prize on reality TV history.
Mai Whelan, 55, better known as Player 287, emerged victorious in the inaugural season of “Squid Game: The Challenge,” a reality competition based on the hit South Korean Netflix series. After more than two weeks of grueling challenges, the show culminated in a high-stakes game of rock, paper, scissors, with Whelan defeating Phill Cain (Player 451) through sheer strategy.
“Playing with an adult male, they tend to draw towards rock and scissors because they symbolize to them the power within them,” Whelan says in the show, accurately predicting Cain’s first move. She thus kicks off the game with a winning paper, breezing through the rest until she finds the key that unlocks the safe to the coveted $4.56 million prize.

While she has been known for her calculated gameplay, Whelan insists she entered the contest with no actual strategy. “I didn’t have any strategy other than to review the TV show over and over again,” she tells Vulture.
“I was scared of the ‘Squid Game,’ actually, because I didn’t grasp that game at all. It’s also physical. I said, ‘There’s no way in hell I will come out of that game winning.’”

Surviving in life

Whelan’s triumph is a testament to a life marked by resilience over adversity. On Episode 6, she recalls surviving a bullet to her head as a child during the Vietnam War.
“All the refugees were laying down on the airfield. Being 8 years old I was curious, so I had my head up, trying to see where the bombing was coming from, where the guns were shooting at,” she says.
“[For] a split second I lifted my head up and a soldier automatically put the gun to my temple and he was about to shoot me because he thought I was a threat. My mother yanked me so hard to the ground, and in that split second, my life was almost over,” she recalls.
Whelan and her family moved to the U.S., where she became a single mother at 19. She served in the Navy for 20 years before working as an immigration adjudicator for the Homeland Security Department.
Then, she entered — and won — “Squid Game” as a retired Asian American woman.
“I am so glad that I’m a woman, I’m a minority, and able [to] overcome everything at my age,” Whelan tells Tudum. “So I’m putting it out there, ‘Don’t be afraid. Be who you are and just plow through.’”

“I’m still Mai”

Whelan has yet to receive her prize, but she is keen on using a lot of them for charitable causes. After splurging on a Ralph Lauren gown for a “Squid Game” gala, she plans to channel some of her winnings toward children’s education, the elderly’s basic needs and healthcare, and the climate and wildlife.
“I think those are very important to how we see the world so that way we can live in it and enjoy it for everybody, not just us at the present moment,” she tells ET.
The show finished filming in February, and Whelan, who had to keep her victory a secret — save for her husband, who did not believe her anyway — is now back to her family in Fairfax, Virginia. She has also joined Instagram.
“It was a relief to go back to normal life and not worry about getting eliminated. I needed that after two and a half weeks of intense go, go, go, and emotional ups and downs,” she tells Tudum. “But the person that came into [the competition] is me. I’m still Mai, and she hasn’t changed — except that I came out stronger.”
“Squid Game: The Challenge” is now accepting applications for Season 2.
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