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How I Survived SAS: Who Dares Wins

James Gwinnett (WW 97-02) on tackling the ultimate test of endurance

James Gwinnett (WW 97-02) is not your average PR professional. A regular marathon and ultra-marathon competitor, James is no stranger to putting himself through challenges that, for must of us, are barely imaginable. In 2018, he set his sights on a new, extreme test of endurance by signing up to Channel 4’s popular TV competition, SAS: Who Dares Wins.

Held in Chile’s punishing Andes Mountains, recruits face gruelling challenges that mimic the SAS’s ruthless selection process. Designed to test their mental and physical strength, this year trials included facing a 200-foot forward abseil and plunging into sub-zero waterfalls, until they reach the final ‘Sickener’ that determines the show’s overall winner. Read on to find out about James’ experience on the show. 

Q: Why did you sign up to Who Dares Wins, and what was it like being on the show?

I signed because I knew the experience would be the opportunity of a lifetime. I knew it would be the ultimate challenge in pushing me to my physical and mental limits and gaining an understanding of what those limits are. Then also, because I'm a bit of a glutton for punishment - I wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone, somewhere I'd been happily camped for too long, because of the potential reward factor of having achieved something incredible. 

Who Dares Wins was brutal and exhilarating in equal measure. Few will ever come close to experiencing such a punishing and yet thrilling few days, in such a spectacular setting. Being thrust into an environment that involves so much stress for such a prolonged period of time - including some mountainous highs and crushing lows - allows you to realise potential you never knew you had, and push limits further than you thought possible. It was undoubtedly the most exhilarating experience of my life. 

Q: You’re an extreme athlete, and so, as someone who’s used to testing their limits, did you find if difficult?

Absolutely, though probably not in the way you’d imagine. The gruelling thing about the process is that it’s designed to test you both physically AND mentally. So, while it was brutally hard in a physical sense, being fit (and stubborn!) allowed me to battle through as one of the leaders of the group. What I found the most difficult was being kept constantly guessing and never being able to properly wind down. We were on edge the whole time, never knowing what was coming next, and it was a huge lesson in adapting to each and every situation.

Q: What was the hardest moment in the series for you?

A task on the penultimate day involved traversing a ladder suspended over a canyon, encouragingly called 'The Devil's Throat'. With only a rope either side to stabilise us we had to walk over the ladder, ignoring the 100ft drop to the river below, and perform exercises like crouching down half way across. As the heaviest recruit by some 10kg, I felt the bend in the ladder more than others and when the wind picked up, I was swaying all over the place. I got to the other side but lost my footing as I clambered up the rocky bank, and Ant Middleton made me do it again as punishment for losing focus!

Q: How did you cope with the harsh winter weather conditions?

I did as much research as I could – I’m fortunate in that I know a couple of Guinness World Record holders in polar exploration! And while the conditions were hard, they were manageable provided you kept your wits about you and your kit in check - that was part of what the DS (Drill Sergeant) taught us.

It was more the combination of different factors that was designed to wear us down and ultimately get recruits to VW (voluntary withdrawal). The fact that we had to contend with regular intense physical exercise, at altitude and in those harsh conditions, whilst being tested mentally and emotionally, under constant assessment, so you can’t lose focus for one second - that’s going to be hard for anyone. 

Q: What were Ant, Foxy, Ollie and Billy like? 

The DS were brilliant. Ant, as Chief Instructor, was a little further removed but I have the utmost respect for Foxy, Ollie and Billy. Foxy is a giant of a man - both literally and figuratively speaking - who has come through some rough times and is humble and wants to help others because of what he has experienced. From Ollie, I got the sense that he would move mountains to come to the aid of anyone who needed help, and Billy was a laugh a minute with some of the things he said but also incredibly patient throughout the process.

Q: This series was quite novel in the sense that female recruits took part for the first time, and it also aired in same the year that the Ministry of Defence opened the SAS selection process up to women. Do you think gender made a difference in the show? 

I don’t think it’s possible to generalise that easily, because there’s no sweeping statement that applied to either gender. It didn't come out as either the men or women being 'better' as shown by there being equal numbers in the final eight. Every member of the special forces has their own unique set of skills and strengths and the job of someone in the position of the DS is to bring out those strengths, whilst helping recruits learn to deal with any weaknesses. For example, we had both guys and girls afraid of heights, but they overcame these fears through dogged determination. The most pertinent lesson I learned from the experience is that it's not about being the fittest or fastest, it's about being the most resilient and resolute. 

Q: What was the best part of the series for you? 

The last couple of days and being part of the final eight were incredible. I think by that stage we had earned the respect of the DS and they were willing to give us slightly freer rein, which meant we could really enjoy and appreciate the experience. We also did some fantastic things which will stick long in the memory - flying up a stunning mountainous valley in a helicopter was a highlight - and being able to laugh and joke around with the DS was great. 

I got a sense of having 'made it', knowing that I had got through to the interrogation phase, and while that was probably the most tortuous experience of my life, it gave me an enormous sense of fulfilment. 

Q: Now that you’ve been through this experience, would consider joining the Special Forces? 

I think I've missed the boat unfortunately because I'm at that stage of my life where I'd like to settle down. But knowing what I know now, if I were to do it all over, I may well do things very differently.

Q: If you could take part in Who Dares Wins again, would you? 

Absolutely. I'd go tomorrow. Today even!

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