LAURA NOLAN

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). 

ENDS

Ryan Andrews

First Published October 2021

KING OF THE MOUNTAIN

“The thing about the breaking is, and they [the DS] said that from day-one, you need to be broken. In order for you to build, you need to be broken. Some people might go in – not that recruits did – but some people might go in and say I won’t be broken. You won’t break me. But when you allow yourself to be broken, and I did, I got to the real, real bottom of my soul. Like last week’s episode where I was saying [to myself] that the only way forward now is up. I can only go up from here. So when the hike came, I was like, well, I’ve been to the bottom of my soul, I’ve been to the lowest part of my life, so this is a bonus. That’s where I was at. That’s allowing yourself to be broken, it’s allowing yourself to get vulnerable and open up. And you build back up even quicker.” 


That was actor RYAN ANDREWS talking to us about last week’s epic episode of ULTIMATE HELL WEEK which saw Ryan and his fellow remaining recruits take on the monumental Foreman Aftman challenge, described as Hell Week‘s toughest event. If you – like me – followed Ryan‘s journey on Dancing With The Stars Ireland in 2020, there’s one thing you’ll already have known about him, and that’s that he commits himself body and soul to everything he takes part in. We saw that week-in and week-out on Dancing With The Stars. Maybe, though, some people might have considered a show like that to be a bit of an easy ride, so not really the best way to judge someone’s levels of resilience or depth of character. Well firstly, those people would have been wrong – soooo wrong – in thinking that way. And even if they did back then, there’s just no way they could think like that now. Because last week on Ultimate Hell Week, the man who showed he could be a king of the dancefloor, proved he could be king of the mountain, too. 


I first met Ryan back during his time on Dancing With The Stars, and lest anyone be in any doubt, a finer gentleman you could not meet. And it was my pleasure to catch up with him again last week. 


After first congratulating him on his achievements so far, and before we got into the trials of Ultimate Hell Week itself, I wanted Ryan to take me right back to the moment when he was first asked to take part. Did he say yes straight away?


“I got an email. And the email said, ‘Hi Ryan, we are Motive Television and we produce the series Hell Week’, and I replied without even reading the rest of the email, 100%, I’d do it. It was meant to go on ages ago, the show kept being put back so many times. It was meant to be last year, then in November, then in January. And I actually tore all my ligaments in my ankle last year when I was going to be doing the show, and I even said yes then! Even with my ligaments torn. Little did I know how bad the show was gonna be! [Laughs]. But yeah, I was 100% doing it straight away. I knew this was something I would never, ever do again in my life. I’d never get the chance to. So it was ‘Yes!’ before I even read the end of the email.” 

What was the reaction of Ryan’s family and of Michaela when he told them he was doing it? 


“Well Michaela doesn’t know anything about the show [at the time], she’s never seen the show, and she kept goin’, ‘Ah, it won’t be that bad, they’re not gonna make ya do that, it’ll be more like ‘I’m A Celebrity’, that’s what she thought it was! My mam and dad, they watch the show like myself, and they went, ‘Oh Jesus, that’s tough!’ Normally what happens is, you do a show and you think it won’t be that bad…and it ends up being bad [tough]. But with this, before I went into it, I was saying this is gonna be horrible. I knew it was gonna be so tough. But even at that, I wasn’t expecting how tough it was actually going to be.” 

Although Jake Carter remarked on one episode that he only had two weeks notice before the show began, generally speaking, it’s not something that you find out about today, and it begins tomorrow. Knowing Ryan to be the kind of guy he is, I knew he wouldn’t have let the time between being asked to take part and when the show got underway pass without doing as much as he could to ready himself for what lay ahead. So physically, how did he go about preparing himself for his time on Hell Week


“Realistically, I had about four or five weeks’ notice. This happens [with me] all the time. Unless I have an actual goal, an end date, I won’t do anything. I can’t focus or put time into something if I don’t know if it’s going to happen, or when it’s going to happen. I need a specific date, whether it’s Dancing With The Stars, whether it’s panto…I need an end goal. We got a few emails back and forth and I wasn’t doing anything because they were saying, look, it might happen next year, it might not happen at all. Then I got the final confirmation that the show was happening in four to five weeks time, on whatever date it was. Then, I said ok, I’m 100% all-in. The diet, the training. And the hard thing is, the more you train, the further away you think you are from where you need to be. You try to cram everything into five weeks, but in those five weeks, you’re tired, you’re fatigued, you’re mentally nearly getting weaker. You’re researching the show, and the more you do that, you feel like getting sick! [Laughs]. It was a mad five weeks! But, I learned a lot about myself in that time, and to train specifically for what would be at hand, and I think that’s what I did.” 

In many ways, the physical side of Hell Week is only half the battle. Less than half the battle, even. On a show like this, your mind will be your biggest ally, or maybe your worst enemy. How did Ryan try to prepare for that side of things? 


“The mental side is the most important. The mental side is number-one. If you’re not mentally strong or fit… It’s your mind that tells your body what to do. Your mind, your thoughts, that’s what tells you to get up at 5 o’ clock in the morning to go on the hike. Your body doesn’t tell you that. Your mind is the number one thing, and if that’s right, and in a great place, you can achieve and conquer anything. Sometimes in life, my mind might not be the strongest. And there might be days where I don’t want to do that training session. I don’t want to get up. I don’t think I’m good enough. But those four or five weeks [beforehand], and that week of that course, I felt like my mind was as strong as it has ever been. Even with the hike, it was my mind telling my body to go on. It was my mind saying your rib is broken, but it’s not gonna stop ya. So I went to the sea a lot, and I’d go in in the freezing cold and stay there as long as possible. I’d visualise myself completing the course, visualise myself getting through the course, doing all of that stuff. And I’d meditate a lot, too.” 

Before going any further, I wanted to turn the conversation in the direction of another big reason why Ryan said yes, his chosen charity, the Mater Foundation…


“I’ve said this before about the Mater Foundation, or really any charity, because there were eighteen recruits with eighteen different charities. The work of the Mater Foundation and all the frontline workers – I’m talking about cleaners, caterers, head-doctors, electricians in those hospitals, everyone – they keep all that running for patients throughout the year. And my dad was one of those patients this year. I saw the work that they did. They go through hell every single day. Their daily routines are like a week of ‘Hell Week’ for us, what they have to face, the obstacles they have to overcome. In particular over the last year. They were a lifeline, they were like the DSs to my dad [laughs], they were the ones calling the shots. Hell Week is a show. We’re well-known people going on a reality tv show. But these people [in the Mater Foundation] do it for life. The hike wasn’t life or death. If I wanted to quit, I could have quit and got a lift home. These doctors, these nurses, they can’t. They can’t just quit. If they quit, that affects so many people. So I wanted to show my respect and support for all the people in the Mater by doing this for them.” 

There were two things that I figured had to have been on Ryan’s mind going into Hell Week: his biggest fear, and whatever he promised himself about his time on the show. I asked him if he’d share those thoughts…


“To be perfectly honest, and I said this going into the show when Doctor Jason called the day before – when we were locked in our hotel room and he came in to do a physical examination and a mental examination – and he asked what are your biggest fears. I said I don’t have any. He said, ‘Ah they all say that!’ [Laughs]. But I said no, I didn’t. And I proved that on the show. I wasn’t afraid of water. I wasn’t afraid of heights. I wasn’t afraid of the dark. I wasn’t ‘afraid’ of anything. I was self-conscious, I was uncertain, I was worried. But I was never afraid. I never had a fear. Except, for when the balaclava went over my head. And that was a fear which I did not know I had. So that was a shock, because I was so well prepared mentally, physically. But the emotional side completely took over because that brought back memories of my dad struggling for breath on a ventilator in the ICU. So it’s amazing what this show does. It opens you up, it makes you even more vulnerable. And when you haven’t slept, and you have no food, things just come rushing back in. That was a fear that I definitely faced. And, as you’ll see in next week’s show, I have to face it a whole lot more! And one thing I said to myself was I won’t stop. And in particular, that came back to me on that hike. I said NOTHING will stop me. I said they will have to take that arm-band off my arm. I said I was going to get to a point where they would actually physically have to take that arm-band off me. That was my mentality going in, ya know. If you don’t have that mentality, if you don’t set yourself up like that, if you only go halfway, sure you’ll fall at the first hurdle. So you have to set your goals high to achieve a realistic outcome.” 

Hell Week is somewhat strange in that it can only really be experienced as an individual, and yet, you can only really get through it as part of a group, as a team. How did that team dynamic first begin to form, in Ryan’s opinion? 


“We all had to isolate ourselves in a hotel, so it even started the night before, straight away, it was funny. Obviously there was lockdown, and social-distancing, and we were all tested and isolated. We were like a bubble. The first people I high-fived or shook hands with was Rory O’ Connor, Rory’s Stories. I’m talkin’ about in a year! So when you’re hugging these people before you even start, there’s definitely a bond there, and there was respect before it even started for everyone even saying yes to the show. The more people that dropped out, the tighter the group got. At a lot of points during the show, whether it was a pat on the back or a wink, or Rory – when I broke my rib – he lifted me back onto the boat with Jake, and when my head was down for the first time, he said, ‘Keep your head up, Eighteen, don’t drop it now.’ There’s little moments like that, I wouldn’t have got to this point, without the people around me. It really does mean a lot. You’re only as good as the people around you. You’re only as strong as the people you have surrounding you. I think that’s something I’ve definitely taken from the show, and that I’m going to take forward into my everyday life now.” 

It’s funny that Ryan mentioned Rory there, because in my opinion, the two most completely open and honest people on the show were the two of them. Was there much of a gap between the expectations that Ryan may have had of people from what he knew of them before Hell Week and how he found them during their time together on the show? 


“Probably not with me. I’d be a good judge of character. I knew beforehand that anybody saying yes to this was a certain type of person. They were there to prove something for themselves. They wanted to do something that not many people would say yes to. I respected everyone. I would have gotten to know people better, heard more of their life stories. Do you know what I enjoyed? I enjoyed getting to know how they got to the point where they are today. Take Laura, for example. Most people would have said dancer, blonde, pink, nails, glittery slippers, whatever! But Laura shared stories of her in secondary school getting a flight to England on a Friday evening, rehearsing and training, rehearsing and training all weekend, and flying back to Ireland on Monday. That’s resilience. That’s what builds up their character. Rory talks about having mental breakdowns and going through depression, and fighting that. If you can get through that, you can get through anything. And everyone shared stories like that. And Peter [Stringer], about his training with the Irish team, the legend that he is, that’s what I enjoyed. I loved seeing how people have gotten to where they are, and seeing who they are now because of what they went through in their life.” 

When Ryan was lying in his bunk, in silence – when he actually got a chance to lie in his bunk! – what would go through his mind? DS Ray Goggins, in his remarkable book Ranger 22: Lessons From The Front, shares how he used to use the words of the Madness song, Our House, as a kind of mantra to help him get through some of his toughest moments. Did Ryan have anything like that? 


“No. Nothing [laughs]. One of the Army guys, before we went in, said eat when you can, sleep when you can, and rest when you can. And that really, really stuck in me. He goes, ‘The only three things I want people to do is eat when you can, sleep when you can, and rest when you can.’ That, in some ways, turned me into Robocop! Because when there was food there, all I would do was just eat. When I wasn’t on a task, I would just rest. And when I slept, I would literally go, I don’t know how long I’ve got. So I don’t want to be up thinking, I don’t want to be worrying. I don’t know what’s next. I don’t know what’s coming. So there’s no point thinking about that. I just wanted to get as much sleep as I possibly could. I always think of my body as a battery. You want it to be at 100%. But I was running at 60%, maybe 40% going to bed. I was just thinking I want to recharge as quickly as I possibly can to be ready for what’s in store. So it was more like just get to bed as quickly as you possibly can and recover. And then, you think you’ll do that, but they put you on sentry duty where you have to walk around and you don’t sleep. Then you get into bed for fifteen minutes and you’re woken up with a banger and you’re fecked into a feckin’ plunge-pool! [Laughs]. It’s so hard! But that’s what I’d do, I’d just try to rest and recover for what was in store.” 

Ryan mentioned earlier that he found out a lot about himself during the four or five weeks when he was preparing for the show, but did he find out anything about himself during the show that he didn’t know beforehand? 


“That’s a good one. I always thought that I had resilience, courage, that extra something. But, I probably 100% never really believed it. I give 100% into anything I do. Whether it’s making a cup of tea. Whether it’s playing with my nieces or nephew. Whether it’s ‘Dancing With The Stars.’ I always give 100%. But there was always a doubt there, in the back of my mind, am I actually good enough? Can I back-up what I think I can do? And I never thought I really could. I don’t know if I needed something like this show, that I could say, THIS is tough, the toughest thing I’ll ever face, the toughest thing I’ll ever go through. This is something that has a 10% feckin’ pass-rate. So this was a challenge that I needed. So to get to where I have, I’ve proven to myself that I am resilient, I am determined, I am committed to whatever I do. And this show proved all that for me, and that was a massive thing for me, to get rid of that self-doubt in the back of my head.” 

To wrap things up, I wanted to really dig down deep into Ryan’s reservoir of Hell Week knowledge. So, just suppose someone like Grainne Gallanagh – someone we both know – comes to Ryan next year and says, ‘I’m going on Hell Week…what’s the most important thing I need to know or remember aboutwhat’s to come?’… what words of wisdom would he have to share? 


“Run! [Laughs]. Don’t do it! Don’t do it! [Laughs]. No, I would say be open to finding out who you are. Some people don’t really want to know who they actually are inside. But you have to be open to that. Also, it’s going to be the toughest – emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually – event you will EVER go through in your whole life. Be prepared for that. It’s that saying that if you fail to prepare, then prepare to fail. You have to be very comfortable in yourself to do something like this, whoever you are, because you’re going to find out a lot of things about yourself – good and bad – and you have to be ready to accept that. I think everyone from the show got nothing but positive, nothing but good things [from it]. It’s something that everyone should take forward in life, stepping out of your comfort-zone, finding out a little bit more about who you are, and more about what you are as well.” 


~ The FINAL episode of this season’s ULTIMATE HELL WEEK airs TONIGHT, Wednesday, October 13th, at 9.35pm on RTE 1. To vote for Ryan and support his chosen charity, the MATER FOUNDATION, text RECRUIT18 to 50300.

ENDS

Ray Goggins

First Published October 2021

RANGER 22

Is ULTIMATE HELL WEEK the best show on Irish television right now? The answer to that question isn’t simply a resounding YES, it’s yes by a hell of a way. And one man who plays a major role in making this possible is DS RAY GOGGINS, the Chief Instructor on the hit show. But the Corkman isn’t just a presenter brought in to front the show, far from it. 


With more than a quarter of a century’s service to his credit in the Irish Army, and seventeen of those years spent in the Army Ranger Wing (ARW) as both an operator and leader in a Tier 1 Special Operations Unit, Goggins is the kinda guy that Hollywood’s biggest male stars would fight over to play in the movies. The big difference between them all, of course, is that when RANGER 22 – his number in the ARW – served in war-zones around the world or operated as a bodyguard in Europe, Eurasia, the Middle East and Afghanistan, the dangers he faced on an hourly basis – and sometimes minute by minute – were all too real. 


While situations like those leave little room for error or re-takes if the lighting isn’t just right, they’re definitely the kind of experiences that teach you a thing or ten along the way. And, given that the wisdom gleaned from all of those trials and tests can be applied just as much to everyday life, sports, business, and even politics, they also provide a unique insight that’s worth sharing. That being so, Goggins has gathered it all together to tell the story of his life in RANGER 22: LESSONS FROM THE FRONT, published by Gill Books. 


Mark my words, this is a contender for book of the year and will top many’s a Top Ten list come the year’s end. Whatever you do in life, this book will help you to do it better. That’s just a fact. And, it’ll make you laugh along the way too, because that famous Cork sense of humour doesn’t just disappear when you sign-up to serve your country, ya know. If anything, it just dries out a little bit more and attains an even sharper edge at the same time. And lucky for us, because that helps to make books and TV shows all the more entertaining! 


With the nation glued to their TV sets for Ultimate Hell Week every Wednesday night, I had the pleasure of spending some time in conversation with the man leading the DS as they prove to celebrities like Ryan Andrews, Laura Nolan, Peter Stringer, and Rory O’ Connor that hell can, in fact, be a very real, wet, and cold place on Earth. 


Something I picked up on early on in reading Ranger 22 is that there are many attributes a Ranger needs that most people probably wouldn’t think of straight away. Two that really stood out were a sense of calm and a sense of humour. At the end of Ranger 22, Ray lists a few more of the qualities that have become constants in his own life, so I asked him to tell me a little bit about another one of those – of his own choosing – that people might be surprised would be important to being a good Ranger.


“Yeah, look, I guess the calm one is kind of straight-forward, and the humour, they’re huge in anything you do in your life. I suppose…I’m trying to stay away from resilience, integrity, people would associate all those [with being a Ranger]…I suppose empathy is one that people mightn’t realise is a huge part of it. Not even just when you’re training guys, or when you’re training yourself, but on operations and missions you need to have a cognitive empathy as to what’s going on, but for yourself and outside of what you’re doing, so your teammates and even people you’re dealing with, like villagers, or people who are under a lot of pressure and so on. They could be starving, they could be in awful conditions altogether, and you need to be able to understand that. It’s a hard kind of game to play, because you have to be able to know when to step in, and when not. It’s easier with your team guys, to be able to do that, to be able to read them. So if a guy needs a helping hand, you can give it to him. So I think empathy is a big one there.”

Is there ever a fear or a doubt that a quality like empathy might be seen as a weakness, or become a chink in the armour, so to speak? 


“No. Empathy and kindness are incredibly important in special operations. I know for a fact that through the years where I got a helping hand from somebody when I badly needed it, I never judged that as being a weakness. Yeah, I get what you’re saying, some people might misconstrue kindness for weakness, but a switched-on person won’t. They’ll realise that you’re putting your hand out for a reason, and it’s to help them out. It doesn’t have to be a huge input, it could be something very simple. You could just give someone a minute or two of your time. Or, give them the right word, or the right direction, and that means then that they’ll do something better and work harder at it.” 

And might empathy ever be seen as a weakness by anyone outside of the team who you might be dealing with? 


“It depends. Some people, because of their own failings, maybe. But you’ll find that people who won’t give empathy, or don’t use empathy, are usually weak, and not very good at what they do anyway because they can’t relate to other people. I think personally, from my experience of being in special operations for nearly twenty years, you’d see guys being empathic in all kinds of ways, on a daily basis. And it can be just the smallest little thing, like pulling a fellow up off the ground, or giving a fella a kind word, or just stepping into a situation for thirty seconds but that means that situation completely changes. That person that you’re stepping in to help, you’re basically taking the pressure off them for that thirty seconds, and that could mean the difference in them being able to carry on for another twenty-four hours or forty-eight hours, or a week or whatever it is. because you made that small little gesture.”


Back around January 2019, I didn’t listen to my gut-instinct on something, and it ended up costing me, both in a business and a personal sense. While I may have thought that was a disaster for me at the time, where it rates on a scale of actual life-or-death problems is brought into sharp focus by the fact that at that exact same time, Ray was being blown-up in a suicide bomb attack on the compound where he was stationed in Afghanistan. But when it comes to something like gut-instinct, is there any place for that in the Rangers, given that training for the ARW is so intensive, so comprehensive, and almost always on-going? 


“It’s a good question. You have the processes and procedures that are trained into you, so it is second nature, and when you do make that decision to flip the switch you carry out whatever you need to do very quickly. But your gut has a role to play, as in what scenario you carry out or where you go from a situation. Do you defuse it by being less aggressive? Or do you make that call to be completely aggressive and end the situation by violence, or whatever it is you’re doing. Gut has an awful lot to do with it. And experience only can teach you that. It’s all well and good to have these drills and routines that you slot into, but you have to KNOW then what drill to slot into and when to do it. It’s like that knowledge and wisdom piece. Knowledge comes from the book, but wisdom comes from the experience.” 

I mentioned in my last question how Ranger training always seems to be ongoing. And in the book, Ray talks about doing a diver course, followed soon after by a recon course, a perfect example of how Ray and the Rangers constantly challenge and transform themselves. In life away from the AWR, has he found ways to continue to challenge and transform himself, I wondered – his book, Ranger 22, being one, of course – but are there others apart from that? 


“Yeah, so the book and the show are two of those things. I have a training business now as well, that I started this year. I wanted to do something different. I had still been involved in security and bodyguarding to a certain extent up to last year, but I decided to do something new. Well, it’s not new, I’ve been training people all my career, I guess, but I wanted to do it on my own and step out into that world. I always find that if you’re learning something new, or you’re doing something new, it’s always good to challenge yourself. If you’re sitting on your arse scratching it, you’re learning nothing. You always have to test yourself a little bit. And whether that means stepping into a new type of career or just edging towards something a bit different, it’s really important. It just keeps you going, keeps you effective, keeps you happy. And it keeps you alive too. There are three things I try to feed every day of my life. I feed my body by training, [looking after my] health, and so on. I feed my mind by learning new things, new challenges. And the most important, is to feed your soul, doing stuff that really makes you happy on the inside. Sometimes I get to do all three together in one event. Other times I don’t. But I try to focus on those three things every day. Not just once a week or once a month. Every day.” 

You’ll often hear about professional footballers who come to the end of glittering careers but, while still relatively young, end up needing hip or knee replacements because of what they’ve put their bodies through. Ray mentions in his book that he eventually had to have laser surgery on both knees, because they had never been right since back when he went through the ARW selection process. So what kind of shape is his body in now, after so many years of testing it to so many different extremes? 


“It’s actually pretty good, I still train away. I’m fifty now, I turned fifty this year, and I do a couple of 10ks a week. I have my own gym here out the back of the house, that’s where I train. But yeah, there is a lot of punishment on the body, on the knees and back in particular from the lifestyle I’ve chosen. But I’m probably fitter…actually no, I am fitter than most of my peers my age. I have no serious injuries that have incapacited me. I’m probably operating at about 95% of my best, I’d say, at the moment. I’ll take that.” 

Does Ray have any fear that his desire to, or his willingness to train, might wane as the years go by? 


“No. There’s a saying I heard once, about [training] keeping the old man away! And that’s what I’ll be doing! You’re only as young as you feel. And there’s no reason why I can’t be physically fit up until the day I die. There’s no reason why not.” 


Mindset, which is what Ray was talking about there really, is so often mentioned as being vital to everything, both in Ranger 22 and on Ultimate Hell Week. In one promo for the show, Ray is heard declaring to the recruits not long after the course has begun, that the DS will be “in your souls in one hour!” Darran O’ Sullivan, the Kerry All-Ireland winner, said in an interview that it only took them about eight minutes to get into his! However, because of the way that training can break people down but then build them back up again with a greater sense of self – and, a clearer sense of something bigger than just the self, the team in the case of the show – would Ray think that there might be a place for something like this – or even some kind of national service, maybe – in Irish life in general, or in our justice system? 


“So you’re saying some sort of penal, hard-labour thing, or something like that, something along those lines?” 


Not so much in a punishment kind of way…


“More in a building way? And even as a national service for young guys to go in and do eighteen months? Well, again, look…that’s a kind of a grey area. I used to think that it would be a good idea to do that for guys and girls, eighteen to twenty-one, do national service for a year. But you won’t get that special forces training for people who are conscripts or have to do a year, a year and a half in the military. What you’d get is regular army training, which is pretty good, but to be fair, it’s not at the level that special ops is. It would be very hard to manage that, and expect people to go through that type of training in a year and a half. But look, there probably is scope for a version of it maybe, something that could even be done in secondary school, training days, teams. A lot of the facets of it that are very applicable to normal people. There’s a lot of what I do in my corporate work and with teams, where I bring in some of the mindset of teamwork and effectiveness training that I’ve learned, and I can bring that across to people in the private sector. Not like a Hell Week type of event, but some of the mindset of it. But it’s not as effective. If you get someone stripped down to their bare soul, you can put so much more information into them then where it’s better for them to build.” 

In the ARW Ray and his colleagues would spend so much of their lives operating – so living, in other words – at such a high level of intensity. Now, I know from sport or music events that it can take a few hours to come down from the adrenaline of an event or a gig, and yet none of those things would even come close to comparing to the levels of intensity Ray would be used to experiencing. How does he go from being so switched on to being able to switch off in a short time? Is it just a process that he has to go through like the rest of us? 


“It’s one of the side-effects of the training. You have to get yourself in a position where you can go from zero to one-hundred miles an hour instantly. This is why when you sleep on an operation, you sleep with all your kit on. When you get up you’re ready to fight straight away. On the show, the DS staff, we can take it from being super-calm to being super-aggressive within seconds. But that doesn’t mean that we lose control. It’s all controlled aggression. You bring it up to a level where you’re controlling it, it’s not controlling you. And you can bring it back down as quick. It’s quite similar in operations then, you can step up to be in that mindset quite quickly, and you can step down quickly as well. Now, it doesn’t always work, but it will work most of the time.” 


From reading Ranger 22, and other interviews that Ray has done, as well as watching UltimateHell Week and chatting to a good mutual friend of ours, there’s a part of me that sometimes feels a little bit jealous of the adventure, the excitement, and the challenges that Ray has known in his life. Or, perhaps a better way of putting it is that maybe I regret not trying more different things along the way myself. But has Ray ever regretted joining the Army over the years? Is there any other profession that curiosity would draw him in the direction of if he could try it for a day or a week? 


“I think I’d like to have been an ice-cream man or something like that if I hadn’t been in the army [laughs]. No, I’ll tell ya, I never for one second regretted joining the army, even in the really bad days or when things when absolutely pear-shaped, when your body and your brain are sayin’, ‘What are ya doin’ here?!’ I always had the answer for my brain. This is why I’m here, because it was something I always wanted to do. I know I’m doing different stuff now, but that’s still all based on what I learned and what I did as a soldier. It’s all the same. I’m still doing the same thing I was doing thirty years ago really. I’m just doing it in a kind of instruction mode now, and there’s more eyeballs on it compared to what I used to have. No, I have no regrets. I couldn’t even contemplate being in another job, to be honest. I know I have a training company now, and I’m doing this kind of stuff, but I’m still in instructor and army mode when I go and meet people. It’s the same thing.” 

I’m lucky enough to be speaking with both Ultimate Hell Week recruit Number 1 Laura Nolan, and Number 18 Ryan Andrews in the coming weeks as well. Having interviewed them both before, I wasn’t in the least bit surprised to see how well both have been doing on the show so far. Some recruits on Ultimate HellWeek can probably surprise the DS by eventually revealing a resolve that may not have been apparent straight away. But what I wanted to know was are there any little signs or ‘tells’ that usually let the DS know straight away – or very early on – if someone definitely doesn’t have what it takes? 


“I’ve had this question before, and as long as I’ve been doing this show, and even running the real military courses, yeah, you might get a vision of someone on the first night or first day, good or bad, but bar someone being absolutely completely out of control and flapping so much that they can’t even make a decision…those are obvious signs of someone who probably isn’t going to last too long, unless they learn to control it. But in general, I find that it’s very hard to pick up on anything, unless there’s a blatantly obvious sign with someone in the first twenty-four hours, someone breaking down or not being able to cope immediately, that’s a red-flag. You’ll see those. But other than that, it’s quite difficult. I’ve heard other people talking, saying they can do it, but I’ve never seen anyone who could, realistically. You might have an idea about someone in your head, but that’s the whole beauty of the process. Someone might be completely on their belt-buckle and weak, but then four hours later they’re the best candidate in the group because of a particular thing you’re doing, or they’re just committing to it better, or they’re more suited to it. That’s the beauty of it for me. So to answer your question, it’s hard to pick someone that’s going to finish or not. It’s really hard to do.” 

Again, returning to a recent interview I remember seeing somewhere where Ray spoke about his time in Afghanistan, and in it he talked about learning to switch off his emotions. There’s a moment in Ranger 22 where Ray is talking about the suicide bomber attack that I mentioned earlier. A lady called Shipra had been killed in that attack. But while Ray was coordinating the evacuation of their compound, he and his team not only made sure to take Shipra’s body with them, but Ray writes about, “…gently placing her in the ambulance with as much respect and dignity…” as they could. I found that passage particularly emotional to read, so I can only imagine what it must have been like to live through. But what I wondered was, was his being able to treat Shipra’s body in that manner – in the midst of so much chaos – also down to his Ranger training? Or, was that a moment when the man himself, just Ray Goggins from Cork, happened to shine through? 


“It’s probably a bit of both, to be honest. Again, as I say in the book, I didn’t know that lady at all, she’d only come back the night before, late, and I hadn’t seen her. And when I came in before that at Christmas, she’d already gone home on leave. My point of view is that it’s about everybody else. A lot of those other people had probably known her well, and they probably knew at that stage what was after happening to her, even though we tried to keep it from them as much as possible. Not because we wanted to keep it a secret, but they didn’t need to see that at that particular time because they were going through enough. This was six or seven hours into the event, and they were frazzled at this stage. I just needed to get them out and get them somewhere safe at that stage. And it wasn’t just me. There were two or three other guys with us, so it was all of our decision. The medic had fixed her up and made her more presentable, and we got her into the [body] bag then, and marked that respect for her. I’m not a religious man, but I’m definitely a spiritual kind of person. It’s good to protect people even when they have passed away, but you still have them [with you]. You still need to protect them.” 

Ultimate Hell Week is obviously a very personal and individual journey for everyone who takes part, but is there any one thing that Ray has seen everybody learn about themselves, regardless of how far they make it? 


“Yeah, people understand their reserves of strength. People don’t realise there’s always something left. Even when you think you’re completely spent, you have a reserve if you can just get into it. And that’s of power, of stamina, of anger, whatever it is to keep you going. A lot of people say, ‘I’m at 100%’, but they’re nowhere near it. Most people operate at about 50% in their average day, and they think that’s 100%. But there’s a lot more in our mind and soul to keep us going. It’s rare enough that we get into it. It’s only those extreme events and those extreme cases that get you into it. Then you realise you have that well. And when you know that well is there in your normal day – like for me, for example, having been involved in madness in different parts of the world – I know that well and how to get into it. So I can tap into that on a daily basis for something possibly innocuous. That gives you that amazing ability to be calm and composed when people think it’s chaos. But it’s not really.” 

RANGER 22: LESSONS FROM THE FRONT, by RAY GOGGINS, published by Gill Books, is OUT NOW and available at all good bookstores nationwide. ULTIMATE HELL WEEK airs every Wednesday night at 9.35pm on RTE 1. 

ENDS