By David Saunders, Health Editor | UPDATED: 08:28, 08 July 2020
In a landmark moment for the British Special Forces, the MOD announced that in 2019 SAS selection will open to women for the very first time. Leading the way – the new six part series of SAS: Who Dares Wins put together a group of 25 men and women high into the spectacular and punishing Andes Mountains in Central Chile.
It is the longest and toughest course that the DS have ever designed, spanning over eleven gruelling days, in a hostile and unforgiving winter warfare environment.
For any of you that haven’t watched the series’ yet, the recruits eat, sleep and wash together – no allowances are made for gender – as their mental and physical strength is tested to the limits. Putting them through this punishing course will be Chief Instructor Ant Middleton and his Directing Staff (DS) Foxy, Ollie and Billy.
They’ve never worked with women on this course and have no idea how many will make the grade… but they want to find out. In the Special Forces world, no one is interested in equality for the sake of it. All Ant and the DS want to know is can women, with no allowances or exceptions made, pass the course?
We got to speak to one of this years contestants 33 year old Richard Stevens, a full-time Barrister and part time adrenaline junkie and fitness model. Just how would the married father of one cope with the extreme conditions?
You’ve got quite a stressful job as a barrister so what gave you the desire to sign up for added stress?
Having been severely bullied as a child I have always had a drive to succeed which allows me to endure things that 99% of people wouldn’t. It allowed me to qualify as a barrister at 22 years old having been written off as “not academic” at school and to reach a level of success at work and fitness that few people achieve. I now understand, however, that I do this because I feel the need to prove myself constantly rather than because of the success it actually brings. The course made me understand this facet of my personality and made me appreciate that my motivation can actually be damaging to me on an emotional level.
Had you ever done anything like this before?
I have travelled extensively including trekking and rough camping, but this was another level entirely. There are very few experiences as a civilian that I can imagine that would put you in such a physically demanding and more so, psychologically demanding environment. This course was designed to break the toughest people and the DS are masters of their craft in this regard.
This year’s show certainly looked harsh! How did you cope with the harsh winter weather conditions?
The weather conditions were tough as you had to manage your layering appropriately for the level of activity and exposure any given task involved. This meant that regulating your body temperature was a constant battle. You would go from roasting whilst exercising to freezing cold as soon as you stopped.
This added a tough element to an already gruelling process. In addition we had to contend with exposure to freezing waters and this meant managing your kit appropriately. Making sure you always had dry kit available and that it was appropriately packed so if you were submerged unexpectedly it would remain dry. A few recruits fell foul of this on occasions and this lead to some pretty hairy situations that could quickly have proved fatal in a real combat situation.
This was very much a unique series, the first time that female recruits have been permitted to ever join SAS: Who Dares Wins. How does that feel?
I believe in meritocracy in all areas. If you are good enough you should be allowed to do it regardless of sex, age, race etc. I was interested to see how women would fare in circumstances that would traditionally be seen to favour male traits such as size and physical strength.
Do you think the women found it harder than the male recruits?
Yes and No. In some respects I believe they did, particularly in solely physical challenges. This was because the weights that we were required to carry were not scaled or adjusted for the size/weight of the individual. This meant that some of the smaller women were having to carry loads that were the same as the men who were twice their size.
This created a natural disadvantage due to the size to weight ratio of some of the female recruits. In other respects, I think the women were just as capable, if not more so, particularly in the teamwork and problem solving tasks. I think having females in the group often lead to a more collaborative approach and diffused some of the ego that you may expect to find in a group of typical alpha males.
You had to share all your space with women for the whole time you were there, including sleeping and toilets. How did you find that?
The fact that there were men and women in there very quickly became a non-issue. Within a couple of hours, I certainly put gender aside and viewed each and every person as a fellow recruit only.
Some of the funniest times were when we were all sat on the toilets first thing in the morning chatting away and watching the views from the open air toilets or stood in your pants trying to dry your wet kit around the fire. I think that gender in such an intense environment really became irrelevant.
At any point, did you forget the female recruits were women?
Almost immediately. Gender went out of the window within hours. Everyone mucked in in the same way. It is so hard to exist in that environment that you have no time to think about or make allowances for gender.
You are there to get the job done and that means that you have to get on with things without airs and graces. The women were exactly the same. There were no diva moments or allowances expected. They were beasts each and every one of them.
Do you think gender makes a difference in this environment?
Initially I believed it would. I felt that the harsh realities of existing in a forward operating base might hinder the female recruits more than the men as we had no showers or amenities, sanitation was at a minimum. We had to burn the waste from the toilets daily which involved carrying great barrels of effluent.
However, the women on the show were just as resilient as the men in this respect and actually probably organised the lads better than we would have coped in our own. Indeed living in such an extreme environment involves very good personal admin and I think the women performed at a higher level in this respect and made the men better for it.
Was your experience on the show as you expected?
It was probably one of the most rewarding and difficult experiences I have ever had. I met some fantastic friends and the bonds we formed in such adverse conditions will stay with me for life. During the experience, I learned a lot about my personality, my insecurities, why I am as I am and where my drive to succeed comes from.
In that sense it was an enlightening experience and made me confront areas of my own personality that I tend to repress.
After having this experience, would you like to join the real Special Forces?
I loved the course. However, the challenge of the selection process is one thing, but the realities of the job are another. Having spoken to the DS both on the show and afterwards, the rewards of the job most definitely come at a price and I am not sure I could step over the lines of humanity that are required when in a conflict situation.
What were Ant, Foxy, Ollie and Billy like?
Tough task masters, brilliant motivators and ruthlessly efficient…. and after the show had finished, they were warm and supportive!
Would you ever do it again?
Where do I sign up for next series?!!