As a parkour athlete competing at world levels, you’re also a qualified bootcamp instructor, you’ve reached the finals in Ninja Warrior UK, and you have been a stunt women on film sets as well as featuring in many video campaigns for the likes of Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, Vogue and Protected Species! – what part of your career has inspired you most and what’s one of most memorable experience throughout all your activities
My most memorable and inspiring experience was probably when I put forward a video casting to work on the new Wonder Woman movie. I got called back and was asked to come in for a few days, which I understood to be a trial period or second round of auditions in a studio next to the Warner Brothers’ studio. I was supposed to be flying to France for a parkour and free running world cup, but decided to go with my gut feeling and went for the audition instead. Upon arrival I couldn’t find the correct studio entrance, so I called my contact to ask for directions. She directed me straight into the Warner Brothers studios…! Turns out the studio area is so large, that what I thought was a neighbouring studio was actually one of the WB studios after all. I registered, was given a photo ID access badge and found the crew. After signing several contracts we went to work, rehearsing and preparing the scene and training the fellow actresses. I was asked to stay on the next week and the next, coming back for more rehearsals and tests and eventually filming over the following months. I got to work with such an amazing crew of powerhouse, athletic women from all over the world. It was tough! I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so sore! But working day in day out with such amazing people, doing so much epic stuff was so rewarding. What started off as me ditching a world cup for what I thought was an audition, ended up with me spending 12 weeks working on Wonder Woman 1984 as a stunt performer. I’m so glad I made the choice I did! It really taught me to keep making decisions that feel good, even though from an outside perspective they might seem crazy. Luckily I managed to qualify for the World cups next year and competed in the whole series in China, Japan and France.
As a brand, we at Protected Species feel that technical performance wear development has traditionally been focused in the men’s domain. As a female in a strongly male dominated sport, do you feel you have had to work harder at what you do to get to where you are?
Whilst being the only female meant that at times it may have been harder for me to participate; I had no role models nor female training companion, I actually think being female worked to my advantage in the professional field of free running. Let me explain. Whenever I train outside, people tend to stare at me a lot. I used to find this annoying, and asked my friend why everyone was always staring. He replied with “well, you’re kind of a unicorn”. I laughed, asking him to elucidate. He explained, saying that being a female climbing on walls and doing flips onto concrete, was somewhat of an anomaly amongst the multitude of men doing this. I realised people weren’t staring to judge me, or disapproving of me, but because I surprised them. I broke their preconceived expectations of parkour. I think this worked to my advantage, because it made me more unique.
In stunts I think being female has it’s pros and cons. Yes there are fewer stuntwomen, but there is also a lot less work. Every war movie, action movie, or even your classic rom-com, it’s overwhelmingly men being shot, fighting, falling, getting run over, or doing something stupid. Luckily, I feel we’ve reached a tipping point where more and more movies involve (multiple) female hero’s, technical fights, police women, women being more adventurous and therefore involving more accidents and stunts. Whilst we still experience the ‘default male’ – where we automatically assume an action to be male, for example, being pushed over by a hurried passerby – I also get the benefits of the unicorn effect; ‘we’d like a female driver to come drifting into the parking lot’ or ‘we’d like to interview a stunt performer, preferably female’.
Being the lead female stunt performer in our company, does give me one distinct advantage – I get to do everything! Whilst the men often become experts in a few areas, I get to learn it all; falling, fighting, fire burns, driving, wirework, etc. Especially coaching actors to prepare for stunts works very well – having a burly man explain to you how to do something doesn’t seem to be as convincing, probably because seeing 95kg (15 stone) of muscle demonstrate isn’t very relatable to most actors. Whilst seeing an averaged size female throwing herself on the floor, flying through the room on wires or getting beaten up, before and getting up with a grin, makes it all seem a little more possible.
Whilst initially I wasn’t considered for the more ‘manly’ jobs involving heavy lifting, welding or rigging, after poking my nose in and inviting myself along to learn, I’ve picked these skills and work these jobs too. Although I do feel that I have to be more vocal about possessing and enjoying these skills, because the automatic assumption is still that it’s a man’s job.
What inspired you to go into this world and did you get opposition from friends and family?
I think I’ve always been adventurous, climbing out the window as a child to walk along the window ledge (sorry mum and dad!), but I also felt very compelled to excel traditionally and prove myself academically. I toed the lines, competing in gymnastics and excelling at school, believing this put me on the path to happiness. Then, at 18, I discovered surfing – I met grownups, from all kinds of backgrounds, spending as much time in the water as they could. They were as happy and fulfilled, if not more so, than the people I knew ticking all the boxes promising success and happiness. It was actually whilst hanging out at the beach, climbing on the boulevard and flipping off into the sand that someone told me about free running. I signed up, at the ripe old age of 20, and learnt to play with movement in an unrestricted way – so unlike gymnastics. I loved it, and continued to do it alongside my degree.
Oddly I think it was my knee injury that inspired me to take the leap to become a full time freelancer – I’d been free running for a while and started doing the occasional job, but I was focused on finishing my biomedical sciences degree and internship. Early 2015 I was training outside, when I landed and rolled on the grass. As I got up my foot planted and my knee twisted, hearing and feeling a loud snap. What followed was months of agony and no answers, doctors telling me it was probably nothing and to just rest. I couldn’t run, hop, jump, nothing. Finally, demanding an MRI, it turned out I had torn a huge piece off my meniscus and that was causing my knee to lock and swell. After four months of uncertainty and walking like a pirate, I finally had surgery to remove the tear and could start recovery. My leg had become so weak and uncoordinated after 6 months of no use, that when I was allowed to start jumping again, I found that I actually couldn’t. I couldn’t get my muscles to work together. I had gone from being a top athlete to not being able to hop, something most toddlers have mastered. I think it was in that moment that I realised that performing at my physical peak was something I could regain now, but wasn’t going to last forever. If I wanted to do something with it, now was the time. I had acquired a skill that opened doors to opportunities for me. Was I really going to let that slide without trying? What would I think when I looked back 20 years later? “Oh yeah, I was twenty-something, a top female free runner, no mortgage, no spouse, could have tried making a career in free running. But I didn’t.” The thought of that terrified me and I realised I’d so much rather have tried and failed, then never tried at all. I rehabilitated, graduated, got a job in a lab, trained parkour every day and qualified as a bootcamp instructor, saving every paycheck for my big leap into the freelance world. I’d promised myself two years; for two years I get to put everything into free running, and if it doesn’t work, well, I’ll have had the most awesome two gap years ever and will go back into science.
Although I was sometimes met with skepticism, generally, I was met with support and enthusiasm. I think there’s so much pressure on people to follow the beaten path, we all secretly enjoy watching someone break the rules and trample off into the jungle. This was not true for my boss in the lab. I think she couldn’t reconcile that I had two passions and I wasn’t about to grovel for my job as she wanted me to. She did her best to make my life hard, trying to prevent me from using holiday days to work freelance jobs. But that problem was easily solved when I quit my job and went full-time freelance.
Whilst admittedly it was unusual to get a science degree before jumping on stuff as a career, it felt really good to me to know I had qualifications for an alternative career if I couldn’t make it work. I think it also made my parents feel more relaxed about supporting me – they could see I had a plan. Even when I started working in stunts, which is now my main work, my parents were supportive. I loved being FINALLY allowed to smash through a first floor window and tumble off the roof, and they loved seeing it being done under supervision of a coordinator. Some things I only tell them afterwards, as I know it scares them – my mum particularly dislikes me being on fire – but on the whole I think they love seeing me doing a job I love.
What’s your greatest achievement as a traceuse, and have you any unfulfilled ambitions in this area?
I think my greatest achievement is daring to stray off the beaten path to become a professional free runner. What started out as a hobby grew into my career, winning a total of 6 world cup medals, and getting me into stunt work. It’s forced me to learn and grow so much! I’m a lot less scared of the unknown, because I trust that I can handle what’s thrown at me.
When I started out in free running there were no role models for me to look up to, no women for me to train with. As I improved and got noticed, I often didn’t understand what the fuss was about – why were people so caught up on the fact I was female?! Looking back now, I realise that it was exciting for other people because I was the role model. I know that other young girls picked up the sport not questioning whether they belonged there and knew that they had all the potential to reach the top, rather than feeling out of place or unsure of their abilities.
I wish free running had been an option to me earlier, that I was now turning 18 and just starting my athletic career, but that’s not the case. Being able to look back over the years and realise that I was forging the trail for the younger generation, also comes with having to accept that the younger generation has now arrived, and there are teenage girls, half my age, ready to kick my butt!
We imagine, focus and discipline must be absolutely crucial in what you do whether training or competing how do you keep focused?
It definitely is, and if I’m totally honest, this is always a struggle. Mainly because I work such irregular hours, sometimes I’m away for a month or working night shoots, which makes having a gym membership pointless and training regime all but impossible. For this reason I have a lot of training equipment at home, which I can use any time that suits me. Luckily, the majority of my friends and colleagues are also freelancers, so it’s relatively easy to find someone to train with, whether it be stunts or free running. But it’s something I have to consciously and continuously pursue. To help me with this, I find it useful to write down distinct manageable goals which I can pick up at any time. For example, ‘practice roundhouse kicks on target’ instead of ‘get better at fighting’. Every few months I sit down and categories all my main goals, and break them down into lots of small targets.
Do you use any techniques to overcome possible fears and challenges you could let us in on and what do you do to decompress?
I think I can overcome a lot of fears, by trying to get some perspective, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t experience fear regularly. I think there’s two types of fear; instinctive, and reasonable. By instinctive fear I mean the physical fear we feel when exposed to potentially dangerous things – for example, fire. By reasonable fear I mean the logical fear of something actually going wrong – for example, burning alive. When the right preparations are made, the reasonable fear is so minimal, leaving just the instinctive fear, that with time and practice becomes easier to override. I still feel instinctive fear when being covered in fuel and set on fire for a stunt, but I can override it because I know we’ve made proper preparations and my team will do everything possible to keep me safe. If this sounds totally non-relatable, remember we drive cars knowing we could get smashed to smithereens because of seatbelts, airbags, headlights etc.
I think the same goes for everyday life things too – being prepared and confident in what you’re doing means that giving that presentation at work, or deciding on a career change, become that much more manageable. Even more so, because the consequences are less dire! Not that that makes failing any more enjoyable! But with so many events in my past that I have experienced as being negative or failing, in retrospect they have been the most valuable in learning to deal with different situations, adapting or acquiring new skills.
Like with deciding to quit my job and go freelance, it was a scary decision, but instead of avoiding it, I made a plan and accepted the consequences; I give myself two years, and if I ‘fail’, I’ll have had two great gap years! Sometimes the alternative, or failing, isn’t as bad as we think.
I think what really helps me is the question, “what will I regret least”. Yes, I’m safer sitting at home on the sofa, but I’d regret all the opportunities I’ve missed.
Decompressing is very hard for me. I always want to learn more and progress, feeling I need to be productive 16 hours a day. I find the best way for me to truly relax is getting out into nature, whether that be a long bike ride so I can mull over my thoughts, or going surfing for a week in Morocco.
From your live stream workouts on your Instagram feed, you look as incredible as always.. Does your diet play a big part in your strength and well-being? And what sorts of things do you eat to keep you strong, and of course we want to know your eating vices too! anything you can tell us that will make us all feel better about our chocolate stash?
Well if it makes you feel better, my stash is bigger than yours! Ha! If there’s one thing I’ve learnt is that I need to trust my body to tell me what it needs. We are constantly bombarded with information about eating; ‘carbs are the enemy’, ‘fat makes you fat’, sugar is the devil, there’s sugar in fruit, aaahhh! After years of trying to eat ‘perfectly’ I’d totally lost contact with my body’s signals. I had to re-learn that when I was hungry and craved a stash of potatoes, that’s probably what my body needed after exercise, not a stick of celery. Trying to force the celery option usually resulted in me later caving and eating a 200g bar of chocolate after all. So, nowadays, I listen to what my body tells me; is it a pasta day? Or a nice fresh salad? Maybe soup and bread? I make sure I never go hungry, eating plenty of fruit and veg, so when my body shouts for double caramel magnums, I know it’s ice-cream time.
Finally, Parkour and free running is a sport as popular now as it ever was, what would you say to anyone thinking about taking it up today?
Go for it! Despite what you see portrayed in the media, it really is accessible to everyone and remarkably safe. I often get, “but I couldn’t do a backflip off that!” as a response to suggesting someone try a lesson. It really makes me wonder! Do people really think we’re going to throw newcomers off obstacles?! Well I can tell you; we don’t! We’re a welcoming community and we just want to share what we love with you. Luckily, nowadays there are lessons in purpose built gyms all over the country, for young and old. Unlike most of our grown-up life stuff, in free running there aren’t boxes to tick, or expectations to uphold – which is so liberating!
And no, no one’s going to laugh if you stumble or fall, because we all do that, that’s how you learn new things. Think about it, how often have you seen someone going out on a limb and trying something new and thought, “you know what, I’m going to ridicule and humiliate them for it!!”? When someone new is really hesitant to try something, because what if they fall over in public, I like to throw myself on the ground and flail around a bit before getting up. Seeing their worst-case-scenario played out in public in a ludicrously over dramatic way, and realising that the world doesn’t suddenly change irreparably can be quite reassuring to people.
Besides, did you know there are no reported deaths caused by feeling embarrassed…? Okay I made that up. But are you really going to let the fear of embarrassment stop you trying anything new? What will you regret least?