By Gabby Landsverk, Staff Writer
A family reunion with Swedish heritage is not uncommon in Morrison County. John Winscher’s, however, included 110 people he had never met before, and the whole event was aired on reality TV.
Winscher was the winner of the most recent season of Allt För Sverige, a Swedish reality show in which Americans with Swedish heritage compete in elimination-style challenges in Sweden. The prize? Details on their long-lost Swedish ancestors, family history and, ultimately, the chance to meet their Swedish relatives firsthand.
Winscher, who said he’s always been interested in his heritage, heard about the show at the dentist’s office, of all places.
“Little conversations can lead to big things,” Winscher said.
While chatting about his family with a Swedish receptionist, he was informed of upcoming auditions.
Winscher, who works as a professional actor and motion capture artist in Atlanta, Ga., decided this would be a great opportunity.
One audition video and several interviews later, Winscher joined the colorful, charismatic cast of eight other people and one couple all in search of their Swedish roots.
“I felt really, really, lucky when it happened,” Winscher said.
While he was wary at first about the high-drama, high pressure world of reality TV, the producer assured him that it would be unlike anything aired in the U.S.
“I found the experience to be far more genuine and sincere,” Winscher said.
The first competition, he said, was a shock.
“I had this moment of ‘Oh my God, I’m on a reality show,’” Winscher said.
In total, Winscher spent 40 days in Sweden as part of the show, the longest of any of the contestants as one was eliminated in each of the season’s episodes.
The experience left him with a wealth of memories, Winscher said.
Highlights included joining the Swedish military for a day and having dinner in an ancient castle.
“We got a real back-stage pass to their historical sites,” Winscher said.
In addition, each of the episodes featured certain contestants, delving further into their personal and family stories.
In Winscher’s episode, he visited a church built in part by his great-grandfather, a master carpenter and sculptor.
The church’s altar was masterfully handcrafted by his ancestor to look like cloth, and Winscher said seeing his family legacy carved in wood left him awed and inspired.
“The details were so incredible. That was a special moment,” Winscher said. “As an artist myself, I’m inspired to create something beautiful that lasts for generations.”
Not all of the show was “bubble gum and rainbows,” Winscher said, and it was challenging to watch his fellow contestants have to leave after weeks of bonding with them.
“Every single time it was tough,” Winscher said. “It was difficult seeing people go, but there was some relief that it wasn’t me. It was definitely bittersweet.”
He said that despite the competitive atmosphere, the contestants were friendly and supportive to each other.
“You got to know the other people so well that you would have been happy if they won the prize,” Winscher said.
A bonus of the ordeal was that contestants weren’t permitted to have cellphones for the duration of the filming, so Winscher was able to take a break from his normally hyper-communicative lifestyle as an actor.
The most emotionally poignant part of the adventure, Winscher said, was receiving a letter detailing his heritage, prepared by the show’s creators and presented during Winscher’s feature episode.
“It was overwhelming knowing that the crew and gone through so much work digging up my family’s history,” Winscher said. “I was very grateful.”
Filming the show, overall was a wild ride for Winscher, as he and the other contestants were kept very busy and often didn’t know what to expect next.
“We were in a constant state of being surprised,” Winscher said.
The biggest surprise, after making it through the final round of eliminations, was collecting his winnings, Winscher said.
He showed up to a planned location, accompanied by the camera crew, only to find 110 people, all of whom were related to Winscher in some way.
“It was overwhelming walking in to all of those people looking at you and smiling,” Winscher said.
In addition to meeting Winscher for the first time, many of the relatives had never met one another, making for an enormous family celebration full of surprises for Winscher and everyone else.
Since the show’s finale, Winscher has continued to stay in touch with his new friends and relatives through social media.
He plans to go back to Sweden in May, bringing his mother, sister and brother-in-law with him to bond with their big overseas family.
“I think being able to go back is going to really solidify the experience,” Winscher said. “The ultimate prize for me is knowing that I’m always going to have that.”