‘As soon as we were off the bus, we were ordered to strip to our underwear in the freezing cold’
There are no women in the elite Irish Army Ranger Wing – yet – but thanks to one woman’s extraordinary achievement, this may soon change. We meet Grace O’Rourke to talk strength, survival and smashing stereotypes.
“Standing on the Blessington Bridge in Wicklow, in wet clothes, being lacerated by freezing sleet and snow while we waited to jump 12 metres into the river below – that was one of my lowest points,” says Grace O’Rourke, recalling her extraordinary experience taking part – and triumphing – in RTÉ’s Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week, an experience that saw Grace, along with 24 other contestants (18 men and six women) endure a gruelling eight-day programme designed by former members of Ireland’s elite Special Forces unit, the Army Ranger Wing (ARW) – a selection process that in real life has a failure rate upwards of 90%.
Only two contestants were left standing on the last day – Grace O’Rourke and Des Seepersad. This remarkable achievement saw Grace become the only female in the history of the State to pass this level of formal military assessment of mental, physical and emotional endurance.
“Grace become the only female in the history of the State to pass this level of formal military assessment of mental, physical and emotional endurance.”
Chatting to her today, as the warm July sun pours in through the window of the Dylan Hotel in Dublin, you can see how it would be easy to be fooled by her fresh-faced, friendly appearance and miss the streak of iron will beneath. “I always wanted to be in the army,” the 31-year-old Dubliner explains.
“Ever since I was 16, and my Transition Year teacher Ms Wolohan handed me a leaflet to apply for the Gaisce (Bronze President’s Award) Defence Forces four-day challenge – where 30 or so young people each year get selected to take part in outdoor pursuits, river crossings, obstacle courses, hiking and survival skills. I got in and absolutely loved it, and knew straightaway, if there was an opportunity for me to do this as a career, that was all I wanted.”
Life, however, had different plans for Grace. “I applied, and failed, on three separate occasions to get into the army,” she says with an unfazed smile.
“It was the aptitude tests that tripped me up each time. I was not academic, and the verbal and numerical reasoning involved in the tests really threw me.”
No amount of physical fitness tests would have thrown Grace, though. From a young age, she exhibited exceptional physical prowess. A keen horsewoman and an active member of DSD (Dundrum South Dublin) Athletics Club since she was in primary school, Grace show-jumped and competed nationally in high-jump and cross-country events – a notable fact in itself, as one discipline demands superior fast-twitch muscles and the other slow-twitch muscles; giving us our first inkling into the unusually adaptable and adept Grace O’Rourke. “On day one of the challenge, we were bussed to a remote military base deep in the Wicklow Mountains,” continues Grace.
“As soon as we were off the bus, we were ordered to strip to our underwear in the freezing cold.” This was back in March; you might recall the unseasonably cold weather and status yellow snow-ice warnings that were in place at the time. I won’t lie, watching the first episode of the RTÉ Hell Week programme does not make for easy viewing. “Most people find the language very difficult to take,” says Grace.
“Grace and the other recruits were ordered to do a loaded eight-mile hike.”
“My young cousins had to watch it on mute!” I can’t imagine the depths of inner strength you must call on to withstand having a well-built, physically intimidating man scream obscenities in your face – literally in your face.
“I don’t care who you are,” says ranger Ray Goggins to camera in one scene, “someone shouting at you like that, right in your face, is going to get to you, no matter who you are.”
On that first night, after being stripped down, physically and mentally, Grace and the other recruits were ordered to do a loaded eight-mile hike. This meant wearing a weighted (45lb) pack on their backs, a cumbersome ballistic helmet and holding an iron bar (mock gun) at all times. “I had no idea how difficult the hike was going to be carrying that much weight,” recalls Grace.
“Every muscle in my body was screaming.” At no point during the challenge was there any allowance made for female contestants – they carried the same weight and were subjected to the same stresses as the men. The next morning, the group were taken to The Curragh for what’s known as “Scratch”.
Having been instructed to pour water over their heads at the outset, they were frozen before they even began.
“It was horrendous,” Grace recalls. “We had to crawl on our bellies over rocky, rough ground, through ice-cold water for hours on end.”
A number of people dropped out at this stage, suffering from hypothermia. “The cold was agonising,” recalls Grace. “But having worked with horses, I had some experience of bitter cold mornings where you just have to get on with it.” Grace spent three years working as a groom for international event rider Emily Gilruth in the UK while she was completing her degree in sports and exercise science in Chester University.
“I knew I just had to concentrate on keeping my core warm and not worry about my hands and feet. Once my core was warm, I would be okay.” “About two hours into the four-hour Scratch test, I thought I couldn’t go on,” Grace admits, “and then I had something of an epiphany. I realised that of course this was the coldest I had ever been, of course this was the most pain I had ever been in… this challenge was going to test me beyond anything I had done before, so I just accepted that and asked myself, can I continue for three more steps? And then another three. This way, I managed to quiet my mind and focus only on the macro-moment I was in.
“As the days went on the challenges only got harder and harder, including a (freezing) river-crossing swim in full uniform.”
“I knew I wasn’t the fittest or the strongest on the course, by any stretch, but I realised I needed to stop comparing myself to others.
I thought of my athletics coach Jim Kidd whose mantra was always ‘run your own race’. I realised I just needed to keep my focus sharp and stay calm.” As the days went on the challenges only got harder and harder, including a (freezing) river-crossing swim in full uniform, hooded interrogation, HUWT (Helicopter Underwater Training) in Cork, and a 21km loaded hike up Wicklow’s Tonelagee peak in the snow – a five-hour hike which Grace (the only female left at this stage) completed and in doing so became the first female ever to complete this recognised part of the official Irish Army Ranger selection test.
“Abduction, interrogation, hunger, sleep deprivation, and white noise torture techniques followed… for eight solid hours.”
“Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that the final challenge involved the remaining five recruits being dumped on the side of a mountain in the middle of the night to navigate their way to a safe camp, aware they were about to be attacked at any moment.”
Abduction, interrogation, hunger, sleep deprivation, and white noise torture techniques followed… for eight solid hours, until only two people were left. Speaking to camera, ranger Ray Goggins says that having never had a female take part in the Army Ranger selection course, he didn’t know what to expect. As he describes Grace’s composure during the (traumatic) interrogation scenes as “brilliant” you can see how incredibly impressed he is.
“Throughout, Grace proved herself to be selfless, caring, courageous and relentless. She is everything we look for in a Ranger.”
“Having a complete harmony and balance between mind and body is what has helped me to keep battling through.”
“It was only in hindsight,” recalls Grace, “that I realised that there is a method I have been subconsciously employing my whole life, to help push me further than I think I’m capable of going.”
“Whether it be when competing in athletics or show-jumping; applying for the army after being rejected; taking on the challenge of starting a new business or pushing myself that extra mile when training, having a complete harmony and balance between mind and body is what has helped me to keep battling through.”
As Ms Wolohan once inspired Grace all those years ago in the TY classroom, Grace now plans to share her experiences and method through a series of talks and workshops in schools and businesses across the country.
Grace’s remarkable story will show girls all over Ireland that there is truly no limit to what you can achieve with the right mindset and resolve.
To learn more about Grace’s personal performance programmes and method and to enquire about her availability to host talks and workshops, visit graceorourke.com. You can watch Grace’s performance on Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week through the RTÉ Player.
This article first appeared in the September 2019 issue of IMAGE Magazine.