This interview is part of the Real Talk Real Women interview series, where we bring you the life-changing, heart-warming and inspirational stories behind the most successful women in health and fitness. Make sure to follow us on Instagram for the latest interviews! For this installment, we are joined by Sarah Donohue.
Let’s start off with a general introduction. How would you describe yourself?
I’m a Yorkshire girl through and through, brought up with 5 boys which made me strong. I’m an outspoken individual and I’ll tell someone the truth even if I know they won’t like it. I like discipline, ambition, perfection, dedication and honesty and I have set ways of doing things. I married a Royal Marine because I knew we would have the same MO which many civvies wouldn’t have including a gregarious and comical sense of humor.
How did you get involved in health and fitness?
I have always been athletic and used to swim for the county. However, it wasn't until I had a powerboat crash in Italy 18 years ago until I decided to go above and beyond when it came to my level of fitness.
Rehabilitation led to my trainer Mark Jarvis realizing my potential and in the early 2000s he sent me to America to compete in competitions that didn’t exist in the UK. Four-day events with up to 300 women running an assault course, muscle endurance tests, bikini stage round plus routine. Miss Galaxy Nova was an epic competition and flourished in the USA.
Mark built my muscle endurance to a high level and I was one of the top girls for the duration of my career. I was even featured on Channel 4’s ‘Diet Drs Celebrity Special’ with five Olympic athletes at age 37 and I had the metabolic rate of a 13 year old teenager, much lower than anyone else's.
Mark was the official trainer to One Direction and still trains the guys individually now. He’s an ex Para Reg PTI and puts me through hell and I love it. Our training times together are hilarious, I’m trained very hard but I laugh virtually all the time because we have the same sense of humour and the harder and heavier something is, the funnier I find it. I laugh to failure, unusual but it works for me.
You carry 2 world fitness titles and have raced powerboats for 20 years - after taking 5 years off you decided to race again in 2018 in the USA and Hong Kong. What made you decide to come back to the sport?
It’s a sport I am passionate about and it’s always been bubbling in the background so when I received three offers in the same month to race, I said yes to Reindl Powerboats based out of Las Vegas and the Asia Powerboat Series based in Hong Kong ran by Martin Lai.
I flew to Hong Kong recently for a display race with my new teammate Charlotte Camsey, an aircraft engineer and it was great to get back behind the wheel. We did however get stopped by the HK police for speeding whilst testing the new boat in the harbour, but they let us go after a couple of hours with a stiff telling off. The speed limits are different midweek and weekends which we weren’t aware of, but it all adds to a great and exciting trip… I’m really excited about what 2018 has in store.
What are the most unexpected lessons you’ve learned on your health and fitness journey this far?
That social media (in the UK especially) has taken away the importance of ‘health and the need to be fit’ because it’s all about looking good and not about performance. I have seen ‘fitness’ decline rapidly and dangerous starvation diets sky rocket and it’s incredibly sad. It has also become a dog eat dog industry, something it wasn’t 10 years ago and the growth of the use of steroids in both men and women is almost out of control.
Is it true that you were the lead stunt woman for the Bond Movie “The World is Not Enough” and “The Tourist” doubling Angelina Jolie? What’s the secret behind doing stunts at this level and have you ever considered acting as well?
Yes, I worked on Bond for around five months with 2nd unit going from the Thames into Pinewood in Q’s Laboratory. The Tourist was shot in Venice and I was asked to be the Hero (hidden) driver on Angelina’s boat.
It’s about the stunt coordinator finding the right person for the job and as the only female powerboat racer in the world at that time then, it worked in my favour. They could have used a small man and often do but they had no need to on this occasion because boats were my life so could do anything they asked.
I was at theatre school from the age of 11-15 so yes I can act and I love it and I’ve also worked in TV and as a TV presenter for Granada, Sky and the BBC. I truly enjoy being in front of camera in any capacity but mainly reporting and presenting.
You once had a horrible accident and actually died for 4 minutes. What can you tell us about this experience and how you recovered from it?
I raced in Italy in the European Championships and a barrel rolled the boat. I got trapped in the cockpit and drowned breaking many bones and fracturing my skull. By the time they pulled me from the wreckage I had no pulse or heart beat. I was resuscitated on the deck of the boat by a fellow racer and the air ambulance swooped in and took me to Venice hospital. They lost me again on the way there and I was hooked up to life support.
However I raced two years later in the same race that nearly took my life. I was the only female racer as usual, and I took the European title that very weekend. It was amazing. Racing is my passion.
You either let something like that take your passion away or you get back on the horse and ride it. So that’s what I did. Recovery physically was a long process because I had shattered so much of the right hand side of my body and I have titanium plates in my face. The lower right hand side of my face is still numb.
After competing in the U.S. you started the “Miss Galaxy Universe” in the UK - what was your objective with this and what made you decide to stop the show late 2016?
I wanted to introduce the UK to a true fitness competition where the girls were not only all ages, shapes and sizes, but also functional. Functionality and health were key in my show. It was a raging success for a few years but as more shows opened catering for both men and women, the focus was more about looking good than performance and less and less girls wanted to do the functional tests striving for aesthetic perfection instead at the detriment of their health.
This upset me greatly because one’s health and a good diet is so important so I opened the show to men and changed the name to the NFF (National Fitness Federation) hoping that men would help encourage the functional side.
Now you run the “National Fitness Federation” which also includes male categories - walk us through how this came to be and what your ambitions are with the NFF.
The physical side of the NFF didn’t go as planned, not one man entered the fitness tests and only two women so we ran the new NFF show as a stage show only. A show without functionality is a life without air to breath so as soon as the call came through about going back to powerboat racing I didn’t want to continue with any more ‘stage only’ shows. I’m a sportswoman and my passion is in physical achievement and being a healthy eating ambassador, so I have shut it down and I’m back racing.
You’ve also been a victim of severe cyber abuse - what have you learned about online bullying and what advice can you share with those who experience it today?
Cyber bullying happens to all ages. Adults can be embarrassed by being bullied and can try to hide it. Sharing this with those are close to us does help. As soon as it happens, do not retaliate. Screenshot everything and make a note of the time and date of the offending post which often social media doesn’t show. Call a lawyer, I used Richard Clegg at GMS Law. He was amazing. Get their advice. Call the national bullying helpline who can help you understand bullying.
The bully’s aim is to rip your life apart, to destroy your business and to attack you where it most hurts. It is painful and soul destroying. The pain lasts a long time and you will think about it 24 hours of the day. I want to comfort you and say there is a way to make it better but there isn’t. Only time will heal, good friends and family will listen unconditionally and the lawyer will shut them down. Bullies are two faced and evil. They are also weak and lacking in compassion.
How important have the people around you been when it comes to your success?
Success even in an individual sport still takes a team. Everything I have achieved I have been supported in one way or another. My friends and team are everything. Without them I wouldn’t have achieved half as much. Trust and friendship means everything.
If you could only choose one thing, what would you tell your younger self?
I would tell myself that there are many people that don’t want to see you succeed for many reasons, and when we are young we sometimes don’t think to take the bull by the horns, we listen to people that ultimately could change the course of our future. Listen to your heart and try and think about longevity.
Where can people go to learn more about you online?
Stay tuned for the next interview of Real Talk Real Women!