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.