Tough as old boots

Just like wrestling, you'd think it's fake, but after getting the veritable sixty shades beaten out of her on numerous occasions…

Just like wrestling, you'd think it's fake, but after getting the veritable sixty shades beaten out of her on numerous occasions, Dubliner Audrey Garland can wearily testify that ITV's Gladiators is very much the full physical monty, with no holds barred. She's got the bruises, bumps and breaks to prove it. Gladiators is a sort of all-kicking, allpunching version of It's A Knockout. Huge, half monsters/half humans (the eponymous gladiators) roam a specially constructed arena in which they find different ways to beat up laypersons, using with a variety of instruments, props and torture devices to stop them notching up points by climbing walls, scoring goals, staying upright . . . Good clean fun - if you're into a bit of prime-time sadomasochism.

Audrey, from Glasnevin, recovered from the pummelling she received in the first round of the top-rating programme to come back bigger and better to qualify for the semi-finals of the competition. There, she laid waste to her opponents and then went on to come first in the final.

Not bad at all when you consider that 24,000 people entered the competition, and better still when you consider what she had to survive to win the first prize.

"I loved the programme when I first saw it and me and my family have been watching it religiously for the last five years," Audrey says, with a worrying degree of enthusiasm for such legalised, studio-controlled violence.


"It was always in the back of my mind to try to become a contestant because my day job is a fitness instructor and I can be pretty tough when I want to be. So, when I saw them advertising for new contenders at the end of last season's run, I and 23,999 other people applied to go on the programme."

What next? "All of us went over for some pretty rigorous fitness tests in the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham where the show is held: after that, they selected 50 of us to go to London and do screen tests and interviews. Then they narrowed it down to the final 16 men and 16 women and I luckily was one of them," she says.

Being a fitness instructor is probably a good background if you want to be a Gladiators contestant, but it doesn't necessarily enable you, as required, to physically crush people to near-death - or does it?

"No, not really, I had to do a lot of extra training," says Audrey.

"It's not like training for a specific sport so I did a lot of general fitness work, worked really hard on my upper-body strength, and then concentrated on my agility, flexibility and speed. I have a coach who helps me along and I train six days a week, sometimes twice a day. I also do things like go down to the Curragh and do the Army obstacle course."

The foundations for Audrey's highly impressive musculature and superbly toned body were laid early, during her career as a national athletics champion. "I was in the Greenfields club and when I was 12 I held the national titles for 800 metres and the long jump and represented my country abroad. After school, I worked in a series of office jobs before joining a gym and liking it so much that I decided to become a fitness instructor, which is what I do now - at Mac's gym on the Glasnevin Road," she says.

When Audrey went to Birmingham to compete in the first round of the show, she brought along a small-to-medium-sized army of 200 friends and family to cheer her on as she took on the professional Gladiators. Her supporters gave the National Indoor Arena a taste of the Landsdowne Road atmosphere as Audrey proceeded to knock the daylights out of everyone in sight.

"The production team on the programme told me afterwards that they couldn't have paid a crowd to be more enthusiastic than the Irish were," she says.

By the time she reached the semi-final her local pub, Martin's - also on Glasnevin Avenue - was staging the equivalent of World Cup Soccer nights, as people teemed in to cheer Audrey on. "It was great, people told me afterwards it was just like the World Cup and they had a legitimate excuse to start drinking early," she says.

Tonight's programme, to be screened at 6.25 p.m. on ITV, features Audrey winning the grand prize and (curiously enough) driving away in the car. Fame and fortune to follow? "I don't know, I'm not really sure what past winners have gone on to do, but even before I won the final I had people coming up to me in Dublin and asking me for my autograph - I was going `Are you messing, or what?' " (handy tip: you wouldn't want to mess with Audrey) "because I just couldn't believe they were serious, but they were." Does she get blokes in pubs challenging her to arm-wrestling contests and that sort of thing? "Not really, I haven't had too much time for men really because I've been training so hard - and Irish men can be a bit intimidated by a woman who is really fit." Never!

With her super-friendly, amiable way, her good looks and good body, Audrey seems a natural for something in the line of television presentation. Her next job, though, is in the theatre - or "panto" if you want to be semantic about it. "I'm in Rockinson Crusoe at the Olympia theatre alongside Dustin the Turkey and Twink and that opens on the 26th of this month. It's mad - I fell around laughing when they first asked me to do it but now I'm really interested in doing it. It will make a bit of a change, to say the least."

And then? "I'm still training really hard because I want to enter the international Gladiators contest next year where all the different winners from different countries compete. And then I don't know - there's load of talk at the moment with people saying they want me to do this and do that but a lot of it is just talk. I realise, though, that I'll have to give up training at some stage - you can actually train too much. But then again, I'm not sure if there is a life outside the fitness world . . ."

Audrey's fight can be seen on television tonight