First Published November 2021
READY FOR ANYTHING
Underestimate LAURA NOLAN at your own peril. That’s pretty much the best way to sum up the woman who became one of the undoubted stars of this year’s hit TV show, ULTIMATE HELL WEEK. If, before this year’s series began, you only knew Laura from her role as one of the professional dancers on another one of RTE’s biggest attractions, Dancing With The Stars Ireland (DWTSIrl), and you thought things went no deeper than the glamour and the glitz, well…more fool you. But, like so many more, you know better now.
We first had the pleasure of spending some time in Laura‘s company back in January of this year, and her energy, positivity and sense of fun made her one of our most favourite within about five minutes of first saying hello! But it wasn’t just those qualities already mentioned that made Laura stick in our mind. As you dig deeper into her story, and really get a sense of who she is as a person, away from the bright lights of television, what you find is someone who is – and has always been – fearless in the face of adversity, relentless in the pursuit of any goal she sets for herself, and inspirational in how she digs in and fights.
In short, if you found yourself in a tough place, Laura is the kind of person you’d want to have at your side and on your team.
When I heard she was taking part in Ultimate Hell Week this year, I knew she was going to surprise a lot of people. But not anyone who knew her already. Those people knew she was made for something like Hell Week. And man, did she prove it in style.
Back in January, towards the end of our first chat with each other, Laura described herself like this…
“I’ve always had that inside me”, emphasised Laura, “that grit, the grind, the graft to succeed, to be the best. So yes, people see the glamour, and they see the glitz, but you have to understand that didn’t come without a lot of tears, a lot of sweat, a lot of blood, a lot of sacrifice, and a lot of dedication. It’s like any sport, you have to prepare for it. If you want something enough, those are the things you’re prepared to do to be the best. And once you are the best, those sacrifices aren’t really sacrifices. They’re actually moments that make you, and make the journey that bit better.”
This time around, I was catching up with Laura a few days after yet another fabulous moment on her journey, a 6th place finish in the World Professional Showdance Championship with her dance-partner – also of DWTSIrl fame – John Nolan. So before we even got around to talking about her Hell Week adventure, Laura filled me in on this one…
“I had finished competing. My last competition was in January 2019. I had made a decision then to do Dancing With The Stars (DWTS), and because that’s such a long process and you have to really commit time and effort to it, there was no time really to compete. So I’d made that decision. But speaking to John after lockdown and stuff, we were both thinking that we’d love to go and do the showdance. The showdance is a different type of competition to what I would have done in the past. You have a theme, you have three-and-a-half minutes, and certain rules that you need to adhere to when you’re doing your dance. I asked him would he be interested, because we dance together, we were practising to keep ourselves going and keep ourselves fit knowing there was a possibility that DWTS could come back. We made the decision six weeks ago to do it, and we had one of the choreographers from DWTS, Ian Banham, helping us, and Tommy Shaungnessy our coach, the four of us worked together and we created Marilyn, the show which we did over there. We travelled over on Friday just gone, and we competed on Saturday, and we made the final which was absolutely amazing. It was both of our first professional competitions, so to speak. It went amazing and we were delighted with it, and with the performance that we created.”
So, onto Hell Week! Now obviously it’s a completely different experience to be living through that process twenty-fours a day for a week to watching it back months later in forty-seven minute or so snap-shots. How different were those two feelings for Laura, I wondered?
“When I was in there, it really became a reality, almost. You felt like you were living in it. It wasn’t just a couple of minutes and then the camera switched off. So it felt very intense. Everything was amplified because you’re kind of in shock at being put into a situation you’re not used to. When I watched it on TV, the one thought that I had from the start was that it doesn’t look as difficult at all from what it was! The helicopter and how high it was. Because it was so intense and there was no switch-off, it was so gruelling and such a difficult process. Way more intense than how it looked, and I know it looked intense, but multiply that by ten! Then you get what we were actually feeling in there. It was such a shock to the system. What I tried to do was not overthink about things, just kind of deal with it as it came to me. Through the whole thing, I remember when I was watching it back, I was thinking jeez there were parts of it I almost forgot happened, because I was just in such a daze through the whole thing! [Laughs]. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t even comprehend what was actually happening [laughs].”
When Laura was first asked to take part, was it an easy “yes” on her side straight away? Or was it more a case of, “Ok lads, let me just think this one over for a little bit!”
“For me, it was the easiest yes that I’ve ever said. Yeah. I read that email and the first thing that I thought to myself was, ‘Absolutely, I’m DEFINITELY doing this!’ I love pushing myself outside of my comfort-zone and I love trying new things. For me, it was just a perfect combination [of those]. I think everyone always has the idea in their heads to do something like an Iron Man or a trialton or something like that, and this was my type of challenge.”
When we spoke to Laura’s fellow UltimateHell Week contestant Ryan Andrews a few weeks back, he pointed out that, because the start was delayed so often, this really affected his preparation for the show, especially as he’s the kind of person who needs to have a set date in mind to focus on. Did Laura find her own preparation affected by all the delays as well?
“It did, to be honest. It’s quite an intense kind of training you need to do for it, and because it was pushed back so many times and we didn’t know when it would actually go ahead, you can’t keep up that level of intensity. It was only two weeks beforehand from when we actually did it, that we actually knew for sure. There wasn’t that much time to change up what we had been doing. Of course, we had an idea of some of the things that were going to come up, however, I feel like there was no real way to train for it. We were all quite physically fit, but with the added lack of sleep, lack of food, all on top of them shouting at you and constantly having you on the go…there was no real way to prepare for that! It’s a mental thing as well as physical.”
I was glad Laura had mentioned the mental side of things, because that’s what I wanted to ask her about next. Because of what she does for a living – being a professional dancer – Laura is as naturally tough mentally as she is physically, because she has to be. But, even at that, on the mental side of things, was there any way she was able to prepare herself for what Hell Week would bring?
“To be honest, I think that was more a personal thing, ya know. It’s how you’re able to deal with pressure. Everyone dealt with it slightly differently. I don’t think there was really any way to prepare for something like that. How are you supposed to know how you’ll react to someone shouting in your face twenty-four/seven? [Laughs]. You just don’t know. For me, how I dealt with it was I didn’t look at certain challenges. Before we went in, they sent us previous episodes and I watched one then said ya know what, for my mental health, I don’t want to know what’s going to come up. I would rather deal with it as I’m faced with it, because therefore, I won’t overthink it. So for me, it was just dealing with stuff and moving on. A lot of the time in there as well, they try to turn our team and our bond on each other. That was another mental thing. But what you really have to do is just try and move on and not overthink it, just leave it in the past. Whatever challenge happened, happened, then move forward. I think that’s where I dealt with things quite good because as a competitor decisions and competitions don’t always go the way you want. You have to try and just pick yourself up and move forward. You can’t dwell on that competition, otherwise you’ll be stuck there. You have to move on to the next one, and the next one. I think that’s where I excelled mentally, because I was used to having knock-backs and having to pick myself up, and push myself on.”
From what we didn’t get a chance to see on TV, was there any particular moment of her own that Laura will always look back fondly on?
“Yes! There’s one moment in particular. I don’t know if you remember the ‘king of the ring’, where we had to grapple and push each other out?”
Everybody remembers the ‘king of the ring’, Laura!
“[Laughs] So the first one I was already going in with a sore nose, because I’d been punched in the nose, and you know how that brings tears to your eyes. I got pushed out, but someone fell on me – not on purpose, it was accidentally – and hit me on the head with their boot, and I went out cold for a few seconds. When I came back around, I started crying uncontrollably [laughs]. You saw on the show, that’s when Ray came over to me and said, ‘Show us the determination and what you said to us in your interview.’ I pulled myself together and I got this force inside me, I don’t know what it was, it was like I just wanted to kill everybody! [Laughs]. One of the moments which I was really hoping that they would show was when I saw Peter Stringer in a moment of vulnerability and I rugby-tackled him out of the ring. It was as if everything just stood still for me in that second. I was like, ‘Did anybody just see that? The dancer rugby-tackled Peter Stringer out of this ring!’ [Laughs]. It wasn’t shown and I was ragin’. That was one of my fondest moments. And there was actually another one too. The very first day was the only day that we had a shower. We didn’t have a shower for the whole time that we were there except for that first day. Every time that we had to leave the room, we had to have our helmet, our bars, and our boots on. The first day in particular we got so punished for not doing it, because we didn’t know our heads from our tails, we hadn’t got a clue what was going on, we had so much in our heads that we weren’t doing anything properly. So that first day anyway, when we were going for the showers, the showers were up a flight of spiral stairs and across a yard. We were in such a rush that Deric [ ] was beside me in his boxers, his helmet, his gun, his shoes. Coming the opposite way, was Steph [ ] in a towel, her helmet, her boots, and her gun. And I was just thinking, ‘Oh my God, what has happened to us?! What are we like?!’ [Laughs]. There were so many of those behind the scenes moments that weren’t shown, I’m sure I don’t even remember all of them that probably happened.”
Although it might seem like a slightly weird question, I wondered if there was ever a moment during Laura’s time on the show when she thought to herself, ‘Ya know what…I’m actually loving this!‘?
“I suppose the moment I really felt that was when I got over a really tough challenge. For example, when I was going across the rope. Even though I was in so much pain, I was so delighted that I actually did it because I knew what it really meant to me. And by pushing through that gruelling moment, I was like, yes, I’m delighted I did this, I’m so happy I did it. After the show, after I dropped out, all those emotions come back to you and you think, yeah, I’m so delighted I did it. Now, I suppose through it there were more moments where I was like, why am I doing this to myself?! [Laughs]. And they’re shouting at us. ‘Do you want to drop out?!’, and we’re screaming back at them, ‘NO!!!’ [Laughs]. I was thinking what’s wrong with me, why do I want to do this?! But at the same time, I’m so delighted I did.”
On Laura’s last day, when DS Ray Goggins told her that she could hand him her number (as opposed to him taking it off her) because, in his words, “You’ve earned it”, and when he followed that up by telling her, “You’re so tough”, how much did those words mean coming from a man like Ray in a moment like that?
“Oh it meant everything. He didn’t only say that I was tough, he also said that I was going to be an inspiration to a lot of women and children, and that his daughters would look up to me, and look at me as a role-model. For me, that’s the reason why I did it. I knew going into the show that people were going to have a perception of me, she’s just a dancer who likes her glitz and her glam. And they probably didn’t think I’d last a day. But they don’t see the years of sacrifice and dedication and hardship I had to go through to become the champion that I am. And that’s really what I wanted to show and prove in there. I wanted any young girl – or anybody who has a dream – and somebody else is telling them that they can’t do it, to look at me and say, ‘Jesus, if she can do it, so can I.’ So for him to say those words to me that day just put everything into perspective, and really made it worthwhile why I did it.”
Laura’s chosen charity for her time on Hell Week was Women’s Aid, an organisation I know she holds close to her heart…
“Yeah, it is a charity that’s very close to my heart. I had experienced – through my dancing career – a little bit of mental and physical abuse, so Women’s Aid was a charity that was very close to my heart. And I know that during lockdown, their cases re-upped, so I thought what perfect timing to do it for them. It’s something that I feel very strongly about. I want to inspire women, and I think this is a perfect charity to go hand-in-hand with that.”
Either from what she learned about herself, or maybe from what she saw in others, what did Laura take away from Hell Week that will now be part of who she is from here on out?
“One thing would definitely be how strong I am. Never to doubt myself, never to question myself. Afterwards, I felt that anything I put my mind to, I can do it. No ifs, buts, or maybe. I would have questioned my strength, as in my physical strength in comparison to others. I knew I was cardio-fit, and I was mentally strong, but I didn’t really realise how strong I actually was. Now, going forward, I feel like I should never, ever, ever doubt myself, that I can really throw myself into anything and give it a bash. When you look at others, it would be how amazing people are, and how supportive they are. Never question a friendship or how people can be to you, because really, when someone cares for you they really do give everything to give you a helping hand. I suppose now, instead of trying to cover things up within myself, I would definitely be way faster to ring somebody, talk to somebody and say look, ‘I’m struggling here, do you have any bit of advice?’ Because when you’re in there, the people around you really help you, and you create such a special bond. So now I feel like don’t be afraid to reach out and get somebody else’s advice and help, instead of always trying to deal with things by yourself. Because really, people are there for you, and they’re ready to give you a helping hand if needed.”
And finally, we finished up with the same question I put to Ryan. What if, next year sometime, someone Laura knows comes to her and confesses that they’ve been asked to do Hell Week, and they’ve said yes. What advice would Laura pass that someone’s way?
“Composure. Being able to stay strong and compose yourself. It’s very, very easy to start to panic, but you have to realise – and you have to keep saying this to yourself – they cannot kill me. This is a TV show. They can’t put me at that much risk. You have to keep that in mind. Yes, you end up hurt. Yes, you end up wrecked. Yes, someone ended up with a broken rib. But, those are all things that you can get through. You just keep that in mind. In the mental challenges, like where I thought the water was going to come up over my mouth, that’s one thing that I kept in my mind through it, is to really believe that you’re going to be ok, that there will be an end to it. Always always try to dwell on the positive instead of the negative. And as well, they were so obsessed with water that the best thing you can do beforehand is to just keep getting in and out of the sea [laughs].”
~ You can follow Laura on Facebook and Instagram (search Laura Nolan).