Celebrity SAS : Who Dares Wins | Interview with former Health Secretary Matt Hancock

Age: 43

From: London

Occupation: Former Health Secretary

As the UK’s Health Secretary throughout the Covid19 lockdown, Matt faced some of the greatest challenges in any civilian role. By taking on the SAS: Who Dares Wins course, Matt wants to push himself out of his comfort zone, test his limits, and show the country the real Matt Hancock, not just the man behind the podium who the nation watched during daily press conferences throughout the pandemic.

Why did you want to take part in this show?

I wanted to do it to push my limits, to test my limits. I’d just come through a pretty tough period being the Health Secretary during the pandemic, so I wanted to test my physical limits.

Why now? Is it something you’ve previously wanted to do?

I have always liked to push myself physically. From my expedition to the North Pole in my early 20s where I ended up getting frostbite, to winning a horse race at Newmarket, and running the London Marathon, I enjoy testing my physical capability and mental resilience. I wanted to see if I’ve still got it.

Are you a fan of the show?

Oh yes! I’ve been a massive fan of the show for years, from the early days, the Scottish series, and last year in Jordan, where it looked unbelievably tough in the heat.

Did you feel going into it that you had anything to prove?

I wanted to push my limits in terms of resilience but also physically. I just took the attitude that I must absolutely throw myself at whatever is in front of me. And I really enjoyed that. It was both tough and gruelling, but enjoyable and very rewarding at the same time.

Do you think that everything you went through as Health Minister around the pandemic strengthened your mental resilience and helped you as you took part in this course?

We learn something from everything we do. Every day I learn something new. The pandemic was the biggest challenge this country has faced since the second world war. It was unprecedented, incredibly tough and tested my resilience.

Did you do anything to prepare for the show?

Yes, I did. I was reasonably fit, and I’d actually done the tour of Mont Blanc, which is a 100 mile walk in four days. I did that a couple of months before, so I was in pretty good shape, but I did an intensive fitness programme in the month before, and that definitely helped. However, it is not really about physical fitness, it’s about mental resilience. It’s about the ability to put one foot in front of the other. And the way I got through it was every time there was something else in front of me, I just kept telling myself, “You can do it. You can always walk five more paces, you can always carry one more thing, and you’ve just got to keep going, and if you can just keep going, then you can succeed.”

Was there anything you were worried about before the course started?

I’ve actually never been in a boxing ring and I was pretty worried about that, and I was worried on two counts. I was worried about being pitted against a much bigger or fitter guy. But I was also worried about being pitted against a woman, and being asked to hit her because that is something that I never want to do.

What did you think when you saw the rest of the lineup?

The lineup was wonderful, actually. I was in awe of some of the people who I’d admired for years. I thought there’d be some people who were bigger or stronger than me, and by God there were! And that was slightly terrifying. Perri’s an Olympic athlete, Gareth Thomas is one of the finest Welsh rugby players in history. Just colossal. Teddy is incredibly strong. And so there was that side, but also everybody was so welcoming. It really makes a big difference that it’s essentially a collaborative challenge, because the number of people who finish depends who the DS think are capable of finishing. And so it’s not a competition. I remember walking in and Gareth Thomas was immediately, completely wonderful and welcoming and funny. And a couple of other people were really, really kind and warm, and that really helped.

What do you make of the DS?

They are extraordinary people. The intensity and the integrity that they show is exceptional, so I found them quite inspiring to be with actually. They can teach us all a thing or two about resilience.

How did you feel when they were screaming at you?

You know there’s no malice in what they’re saying – you know it’s to get the job done. They pushed my buttons, especially early on. And actually what they’re teaching you on the course is not to rise to it when they push your buttons. They push your buttons to get the rise, and then they show you the consequence of that. And so you learn not to! It’s part of the training, and actually it’s a really important lesson in life in not rising to somebody when they have a go. I didn’t feel like I struggled with it. I don’t know if that comes over, but I don’t suffer fools gladly. They are definitely not fools and I had respect for what they were doing.

Do you think your experience in front of the UK press corps prepared you and helped you avoid rising to the DS when they tried to push your buttons?

I’m used to dealing with some pretty aggressive incoming, but the DS were something else.

Was there one member of the DS who you particularly wanted to impress?

Well, you want to impress them all really, but as Chief Instructor, Billy has a stature and a charisma that is very compelling. You can’t help but want to impress him.

You have to fight Jermaine Pennant during the milling task. What was that like?

He’s a former England footballer and he’s no softy. At the same time, I was relieved that I wasn’t being paired with somebody even bigger. Or a woman. But I thought, this is a bad moment! It didn’t hurt nearly as much as I expected actually, being smacked in the face. The bravery some people showed sticking at it, especially when there were unequal bouts. I remember Jon, absolutely ferocious. It was unbelievable watching him. That was absolutely incredible. What a guy!

How did you keep morale up in the compound?

I really enjoyed our time in camp. There was a real rapport and we all tried to help each other get through it. One of my lasting impressions and memories from taking part in the course was of this really, really collegiate sense that we were all in this together.

Who were you particularly close to on the course?

I can honestly say everyone was incredibly supportive. It was a really great group and it was a real pleasure to get to know everyone, and support each other. Some of the conversations we had were fascinating and I thoroughly enjoyed becoming part of the unit.

What did you want to get out of this course?

I wanted to really test myself and be pushed to my limit to see whether I could come through to the end. It’s safe to say the course tested my resilience!

What was your biggest fear going into the course?

The thing I feared most was collapsing and not being able to carry on. I have always been quite resilient and enjoy being challenged, but you don’t know how you’ll cope until you’re thrown in.

Did you get close to that point?

Yes – many times. When you test your resilience and push your boundaries you always know you’re going to feel the pressure to stop. But I kept going.

Did you ever consider quitting?

Having my rib broken was probably the closest I got but I was determined to keep going so I just kept my mouth shut so I wasn’t medically discharged.

What stopped you?

I’ve talked a lot about resilience. It’s my resilience and determination to keep going that pushed me forward. I’m also an optimist and that helps you to keep moving forward when it might be easier to give up.

How would you compare the SAS jungle to the I’m A Celebrity Jungle?

They’re very different and both tested my resilience. There wasn’t a lot to do in the Australian jungle, so I was always looking forward to the tasks. The opposite was true on SAS where your physical and mental resilience was tested to its limits almost every minute of every day. Sitting down was a luxury!

How would you sum up the whole experience?

Being on SAS was like nothing else. I mean, it’s one of the toughest physical things I’ve ever done. And it really opens your eyes and makes you really look into yourself.

Any advice for somebody about to tackle it the next time?

Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.