SAS Australia: we are all Schapelle Corby crying at Merrick Watts getting punched in the nose

The Australian franchise of the gruelling reality TV show gives armchair endurance enthusiasts a vicarious dose of celebrity suffering

Seventeen celebrities, athletes and reality stars are challenged to complete an SAS selection course, while being cursed at by ex-special forces soldiers, launched backwards out of helicopters into freezing lakes and forced to poop in a dunny with half a door.

Channel Seven’s no-brainer hit, SAS Australia, is based on the UK’s equally brutal SAS: Who Dares Wins (which the Guardian UK called “a sadistic PE lesson”), and I only get seven minutes in before I exclaim my first “[Expletive] this [expletive]!” in empathy with the recruits. We are all Schapelle Corby trying not to vomit in a helicopter.

Just as there are armchair athletes, so are there hordes of us who enjoy endurance tourism. The Japanese were on to it first, with their gameshows that married ordeals and humiliation in front of a live studio audience (one of the most famous, in the 1980s, was Za Gaman, which translates as The Endurance), but now everyone’s reading David Goggins and listening to Joe Rogan for the lowdown on turbo-supplements and talking about “grit”.

a line-up of muddy celebrities
Seventeen celebrities, athletes and reality stars are challenged to complete an SAS selection course, while being cursed at by ex-special forces soldiers. Photograph: Nigel Wright/Seven

Goggins, for those not in the know, is a former Navy Seal who wrote the wildly popular (among endurance tourists) memoir Can’t Hurt Me; and if that title isn’t the howl of an inner child, I don’t know what is. He’s so hardcore, he’s basically putting Bear Grylls and Andy McNab into early retirement, and I feel sure the special forces vets in this program will have beadily eyed the sales figures of his book.

Basically, most of us think we ought to get out of our comfort zone – including glamorous Sydney publicist Roxy Jacenko, who tells the Seven camera crew she’s never failed in life before and is game to give it a whirl.

But even though there are gruelling trials ahead in this episode, such as an impromptu fight club (Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Australian Ninja Warrior any more), I suspect the biggest battles of the series will be with ego. Here, in this unidentified no-man’s land, your reputation in modelling, acting or in the swimming pool counts for naught, and frequently, recruits are hooded, shoved and interrogated. When an eye roll or smirk is literally the only power you have, a full-scale emotional meltdown must surely only be seconds away.

Schapelle Corby in SAS Australia.
Schapelle Corby in SAS Australia. Photograph: Nigel Wright/Seven

So far though, nobody is foolhardy enough to let their shellshocked expression tauten into outrage (though actor Firass Dirani can’t resist a few cheeky gestures that get the special forces guys hating his guts). In fact, it’s hard not to feel 50 shades of Stockholm syndrome just watching episode one. I find myself searching for the tiniest scrap of kindness, such as when Schapelle Corby weeps as she watches comedian Merrick Watts get punched hard to the ground by cricketer Mitchell Johnson, and is duly advised by SAS chief instructor Ant Middleton to weaponise that emotion during her own imminent slugfest. Comforting.

Oh, and a sidenote on the one-on-one punch-ups between the recruits: massive kudos should go to AFLW player Sabrina Frederick for picking former rugby union player and Bachelor star Nick “Honey Badger” Cummins as her boxing opponent; though I use the word “boxing” only in reference to the fact that there are gloves provided.

It’s fairly obvious that a few recruits on the show have been picked to serve a rock-bottom-to-redemption narrative. Most prominently, Corby served nine years in Bali’s Kerobokan prison for drug smuggling; and swimmer Shayna Jack was pulled from the 2019 World Aquatics Championships when the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority detected a prohibited substance in her system.

two people boxing in muddy black gear
Kudos should go to AFLW player Sabrina Frederick for picking former rugby union player and Bachelor star Nick ‘Honey Badger’ Cummins as her boxing opponent. Photograph: Nigel Wright/Seven

Given that Reputation Rehab is also about to air on the ABC next week, it seems there’s an appetite for simultaneously crowing at celebrities while deigning to give them one last chance. But will those recruits who’ve already been through the wringer find their experiences have given them the upper hand? Certainly, the SAS fellas agree – out of earshot – that they’re impressed by Corby’s resilience (which is interesting, as she is the recruit filmed crying the most. Is crying irrelevant to resilience?).

There is some evidence that adverse experiences can teach the skills of emotional severance and compartmentalisation. David Goggins constantly preaches to his 1.9m Instagram followers about the way he managed to “callous the mind”, and a 2016 study on super-elite-level athletes found that all of them had experienced “foundational negative critical events”.

But there can be a dark side to compartmentalising your life in this way, like a Venn diagram in which the circles never overlap. Pick up any biography of a notorious athlete and you’re guaranteed to read about a double life that escalates in scale – extramarital affairs, dodgy business dealings, drug use – fanned by praise and accolades, until there’s an inevitable crash and burn. Still, that makes for fabulous material for any of the recruits here who have yet to publish their memoirs.

Near the episode’s close, one recruit announces their “VW” – voluntary withdrawal – after just half a day.

“I can’t do it,” Roxy Jacenko says. “It’s not comfortable.”

We may mock on Twitter, but we can surely privately sympathise. There’s nothing like learning how fragile you really are than testing your physical and mental strength, only to have it crumble at the first hurdle. Perhaps the best these recruits can hope for over the coming episodes is hypertrophy, a process found in weightlifting: you put the muscle tissue under stress and cause damage. It’s only in gaining and repairing these micro-tears that the muscle grows.

• SAS Australia is showing Mondays and Tuesdays at 7.30pm on Seven


Jenny Valentish

The GuardianTramp

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