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Squid Game: The Challenge will boast a whole new cast of competitors for the second season of its hit reality competition series. And the series’ previous winner may have given some advice that could help the successor claim the cash prize.

How this ‘Squid Game: The Challenge’ contender won the game

Finalists Sam Wells, Mai Whelan, and Phill Cain attend Netflix's "Squid Game: The Challenge" finale watch party.
Sam Wells, Mai Whelan, Phil Cain | John Lamparski/Getty Images

Very few expected Mai Whelan to become the Squid Game winner, including Whelan herself. As those who watched the series know, she was the one who came out victorious during the contest. It was a long journey for Whelan, as initially, she didn’t even expect to make it on the show, let alone make it very far. She applied for the series thanks to her husband, who felt his wife’s personality would suit the competition. But after she applied, Whelan was convinced she wouldn’t make the cut.

“I thought I didn’t do well because the person who interviewed me said, ‘You need to be bubblier.’ Then, a few months later, they said, ‘You haven’t been selected yet, but we are doing a background check.’ Then, a few months later, they said that they would have the result sometime in December or January. January 6 came, and I got the phone call. A few days later, I flew out to London,” she said in a recent interview with Vulture.

After being picked, Whelan confided that it was easy to underestimate her. Like its source material, Squid Game: The Challenge’s contests relied on a combination of mental and physical fortitude to beat. Whelan was 55 years old, and even she didn’t think she’d be able to overcome the game’s grueling conditions.

“I said, ‘There’s no way in hell I will come out of that game winning,’” she recalled.

But she did. And although Whelan didn’t have a strategy at first going into the game, she did form a few plans that helped her chances.

‘Squid Game: The Challenge’ winner Mai Whelan recommends laying low

Whelan chose to lay low throughout the contest, only becoming more visible toward the end of Netflix’s hit show.

“I laid low until volunteering. The numbers were dwindling down, and that’s where I wanted to make my move, so people could have an idea of who I am. That’s the moment that made me more visible with other players,” she said. “When you’re sitting in the dorm with 200 players, it’s a lot to go around to get to know a person. You only get a glimpse of that person’s character. I just wanted to give an idea of who I am. I think it’s important in that game to have visibility.”

Mai Whelan formed connections instead of alliances

Throughout Squid Game: The Challenge, some players thought it would benefit them to form factions. But Whelan rejected the notion of forming an alliance with other players. Instead, she thought it better to form deeper connections with her fellow competitors that went beyond trying to win a game.

“You never want to do that. I was more stealthy, getting to know a person instead of a group. It’s a friendly group we can connect with — not like the Gganbu group. They’re always together. Our group goes out, we socialize, and then once in a while, we come together and just talk, joke around, and stuff like that,” she said.

It was noted that, throughout the course of the contest, some Squid Game players became weary of Whelan’s lone-wolf attitude. But Whelan felt that forming groups might’ve been a bit counterproductive in the grand scheme of the game, especially since only one player could win.

“Everything is about alliances. The women’s group at the end, it’s like, ‘Oh, we have to form a women’s group to beat out the men.’ I totally disagree with that. It’s not about men and women in this game. It’s one-on-one. You have opponents. I go against the grain, and people don’t like that,” she said.

Just plow through, says Whelan


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Perhaps Whelan’s most helpful advice might be her simplest. The now-millionaire highlighted perseverance as a key factor to her victory and noted that if she could win, anyone could.

“I am so glad that I’m a woman, I’m a minority, and able to overcome everything at my age,” she told Netflix. “So I’m putting it out there, ‘Don’t be afraid. Be who you are and just plow through.’ ”