This week we were really fortunate to chat to Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins finalist, and old friend of Crewroom, Carla Devlin #15.
Whether you know Carla or not we’re sure many of you, like us, will have been shouting at the TV screens willing her on – from fist pumping the air with joy to shedding a few tears – as we saw her display amazing fortitude during the ultimate test of physical and psychological resilience. Carla – a former GB Rower, Olympian and full-time working mum of four – was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018 and it was during her invasive chemotherapy sessions that she was inspired to sign up for the show saying: “It couldn’t be any worse.”
In this interview, Carla shares with us how the show has impacted her recovery and tells us more about this life-changing experience…
You’ve talked about how training for the show gave the you the drive, determination and focus to help you through the gruelling chemotherapy sessions. Can you tell us more about how this impacted your physical and mental wellbeing?
Once I had been given my diagnosis, although I had an aggressive form of cancer, it had yet to spread to my lymph nodes and we'd caught it early – this was such a relief. However, the ebb and flow of relief and terror of the unknown was constant. Knowing that my body would need to be broken in order to be fixed was also mentally a huge challenge. I'd just run a 10km PB pre-diagnosis and undertaken a half marathon along the Dorset coast with a group of amazing friends, I wasn't ready to be broken.
Managing to train through treatment allowed time to zone out of the cancer bubble. Walking into my CrossFit gym gave me space to be Carla, not Carla the cancer patient, or Carla the mum, or Carla the sales manager – just Carla. The music would be turned up high and we'd all crack on with the session. All I'd be able to think about was how quickly I needed to drive my hips open on the snatch, or how many dreaded burpees were left, or how to spin my wrists quicker to achieve double-unders.....no head space left to think about prognosis, the kids or my next chemo treatment. This was my normal and in these dire circumstances, 'normal' had never felt so good. I was going to cling to it with all my power.
When you final arrived on location and met the other recruits, how were you feeling?
The location for SAS Who Dares Wins was a complete mystery until the moment I was handed the boarding pass at the airport. I had a car pick me up from home and I arrived at Gatwick not knowing who I was meeting or where I was heading.
Embarrassingly, I hid behind an ATM machine while I finished off organising home logistics; school pick-ups, childcare, the cleaner, paying bills which had been sitting on the counter top forever – all those last minute things which I knew that, as soon as I entered the course, would be long forgotten and no longer in my control. Peering from behind the ATM machine I could see young spritely characters appear, all about 10 years younger than me and all looking bright eyed and bushy tailed. If I'm honest I was thinking, “what am I doing here!?”
The London cohort eventually gathered, we handed in our phones and dropped off our bags before we were handed our boarding pass. I was so excited that we were going to Scotland as I’d been dreading the thought of somewhere super-hot and humid. For me, the colder and wetter the better – just like my old rowing days, right?! I suddenly had a newfound spring in my step and knew I couldn't have asked for a better location.
If you were allowed, what one piece of survival kit would you have taken in with you?
I'm not sure if this counts, but I had some amazing Crewroom kit as I headed North and I was desperate to stash my North West Hoodie with me. Unfortunately, we were only allowed to take in three pairs of pants and three sports bras, that was it!! We were then issued with two sets of army uniform; one set was invariable always going to be soaking, so I would have given anything to pull on my treasured North West Hoodie, hoik up the hood and get warm!!
What was the most challenging moment for you on the show and how did you work through it?
Hands down, the most terrifying task was the backwards dive. Until the course I would say I had a phobia of jumping into water, especially when I'm out of my depth. The weekend before SAS I managed to wangle my way onto a group diving lesson at the Stratford Aquatic Centre. No joke, I completely welled-up pencil diving off the one-metre board, I was petrified!
Fast forward to the first afternoon of the course and we had to fall backwards from a 40ft platform into the Atlantic, fully clothed. I’d read a section from Ant Middleton's book, The Fear Bubble, where he talks about the ability to harness fear. So, when a moment arises which scares you, don't shy away from the fear, embrace it, use it to give you that final push that you need. This mixed with the fact we had to dive in unison with two other recruits meant I was able to carry out the task successfully.
There was a remarkable group of recruits alongside you on this experience, who did you really bond with and why?
This is a tough one, there are so many! I was totally blown away by how well the group bonded from day one – the camaraderie was amazing. On the first morning I met Owen #22. I guessed, straight off the bat, that he was from South Shields. I was bang on with guessing his accent and he was blown away! It’s so weird, but in that moment of total vulnerability, the fact I knew exactly where his home was bonded us from the get-go. Owen was actually the oldest on the course, but he was basically like a 20-year-old – his energy levels were insane. He always had a kind word, banter to lift everyone’s spirits, but underneath the larking about he was pure god-dust – incredibly motivated and eager to learn. I was gutted to see him go out with an injury.
In the accommodation I was next to Ammar and Shak. We lucked-out being close to the fire, watched out for each other and always made sure our bags were squared away, beds made, and logs were on the fire. There was a calmness around our end of the room, I felt like we were all in the zone, totally focused and quietly reflective but with lots of banter thrown into the mix too.
I got to know James super well towards the end of the course, he's an absolute legend. He's built like an ox, sleeps dead straight like a vampire, has the quickest wit I've ever heard and just keeps chipping away session after session, always with a wry smile on his face and twinkle in his eye. I genuinely couldn't have been happier that he won with Chris, they absolutely deserved it.
Finally, a special mention to Kim – always grounded, always watching out for others and always in the moment. She shared the phrase with me, 'be where your feet are'. I love it, so important to just be present, be in the moment, soak it up and have gratitude.
If you had to choose one stand out moment, what was it?
One of my favourite tasks was abseiling out of a helicopter into a boat. For some reason this didn't get aired but it was epic! I have never flown in a helicopter and had always been terrified of them but, on that day, I hopped in it like it was my local H37 bus. I was insanely calm – I almost felt like a totally different person.
When I first pushed off the edge of the helicopter to descend down, my legs got caught under the helicopter and I ended up dangling upside down. Once I'd sorted myself, I abseiled down only to realise that the boat was unable to align with the ropes. I needed to lock off the rope and just remain static, swaying on the rope in mid-air until they had a plan. The plan resulted in me being flown towards the beach and finishing the abseil onto the pebbles, right next to Foxy. The whole experience was incredible, all I could think was that if I'm capable of that, what else am I capable of?
We know being a mum of four young children means you’ve got some experience in the sleep deprivation department! But how were you able to deal with both sleep and food deprivation?
Although the food was bland and portion sizes were lacking, I never had any major hunger pangs. We were so tired we'd just gobble down was made for us e.g. porridge, soup and then try and either dry out our wet clothes or get our heads down before the next detail. I'd always wait to the end of mealtimes and stash any leftovers, then squirrel it away in my bergen so I could pull it out as a recovery snack after the next challenge – once a rower, always a rower!
I knew that the only way I could withstand longevity on the course was to make sure I was doing the basics well; post session snacks, raiding the medical box for hydration salts, resting when able, tending to wounds quickly and a positive mindset. The other recruits were constantly amused when I'd pull out leftovers the minute we'd completed a challenge. With regards to sleep, like you say, I've got four little ones, so I've been sleep deprived for nine years! I’m well practised and although I love sleep, I don't actually need a crazy amount.
Massive congrats on getting to the final! Was it always your ambition to get there?
In short, in the back of my mind, yes. I don't think I would have said it out loud to anyone but yes, I was absolutely gunning to get to the final. I had the mindset that if I showed up with the best version of myself at every challenge, played to my strengths and dug in deep when my weaknesses were exposed and with a bit of luck thrown in for good measure, then it was a viable goal.
After returning from the final you must have been absolutely exhausted physically, but still buzzing from the experience. Tell us more.
Exhausted is one way to put it – I was in A&E a few hours after I left the course with an suspected DVT, my legs were incredibly swollen, my ankles were both twice there normal size and I had cellulitis in both legs due to all my cuts being infected. I had a popped rib (suspected to be broken) from the murder ball challenge and my hands were in so much pain I was struggling to move my fingers.
In short, I was in pieces. I have never been so acutely broken yet I was in the most amazing mental state I have ever been in – I felt empowered, proud, revitalised and full of life. It really was an experience of a lifetime.
Did you learn anything new about yourself on the show?
As cliched as it may sound, we have so much untapped potential waiting to be discovered and unravelled. We are capable of reaching such great heights with the right mindset, dedication to the task at hand and motivation to see us through the tough times. Having been brought to tears watching recruits wrestle with the backwards dive on previous series, and then to actual accomplish it myself, and by keeping pace with the younger recruits challenge after challenge, my self-belief soared to new heights.
Your family must be incredibly proud. What did your children think about seeing their mum on TV?
The morning after the show aired, I let the kids watch the opening scenes...moody photography, dramatic music, speed boats, diving into the ocean, we were all loving it. That was until Ant Middleton shouted something along the lines of, “If you don't sort yourself out, I'm going to F*** you off”. This was quickly repeated by my six-year-old, George, and then by one of my four-year-old twin boys, Arlo – all whilst I was desperately trying to press the mute button!! I haven't dared show them anymore but one day, when they're older, they can watch the entire thing and hopefully they'll see a side to me that they'll be proud of.
Finally, would you do it all again?
In a heartbeat.
SAS: Who Dares Wins S5 is available Channel 4's On Demand - All 4 | Photo credits: www.channel4.com