A national hero joins ‘Cocaine Cassie’, Peter Bol and Craig McLachlan in a desert on SAS Australia

Vet and diver Craig Challen at Tham Luang cave. He received, among the many accolades, a Star of Courage.

Vet and diver Craig Challen at Tham Luang cave. He received, among the many accolades, a Star of Courage. Photo: AAP

For the first time, extreme reality TV show SAS Australia is taking its star recruits offshore to a secret base in the Middle East, including one hero Australian explorer responsible for the 2018 miracle Thai cave rescue operation.

Dr Craig Challen, 57, a vet and the 2019 co-Australian of the Year, will join ‘Cocaine Cassie’ Sainsbury, athlete Peter Bol and actor Craig McLachlan for this fourth iteration of the ultimate challenge series.

Jana Firestone, a Melbourne-based therapist with a degree in psychology and a master’s in counselling who has worked for 17 years in grief and trauma, says Dr Challen will either share his story or take on a “caretaker” role of lifting others.

What compels celebs to go on the show?

Ms Firestone says there’s a few things at play with this year’s group.

Former world boxing champion Anthony Mundine, 47, Olympians Stephanie Rice, 34, and Matthew Mitcham, 35, Balinese princess Lindy [Klim] Rama-Ellis, 45, and Brownlow medallist Jason Akermanis, 46, have also volunteered for the series of gruelling physical and psychological tests.

As they endure days and nights on the show, contestants are either “culled”, they can voluntarily withdraw (aka quit) or they can “pass” (win).

“There’s the lure of a paid gig –  Bol is reportedly getting $500,000 for SAS and a sit-down with Seven  – there’s the potential for profile building, and, looking at the list of celebs, it sounds like there’s a number of redemption stories that might be played out,” Ms Firestone said.

For Dr Challen, she says “he’s seen more trauma than anybody, and that could be something that is really challenging for him”.

“I don’t know how open he’s been about his career and the tough things he would’ve experienced on that big journey in Thailand, but as somebody whose entire career is about rescuing others, I wonder if that means his personal exploration is shelved a bit as he’s there lifting up others and supporting others,” Ms Firestone said.

Since the show kicked off in 2020, the game plan has been to choose a group of Australian celebrities, all of whom have been in the public spotlight for good or evil.

They have to eat, sleep and train together. This time it’s in punishingly hot and arid conditions in a Middle East location familiar to Special Forces personnel.

There will be no allowances or exceptions made for their celebrity status or gender.

“This is the perfect platform where you get to show the world your vulnerabilities, and there is a lot of value placed in sharing vulnerability and getting real with people,” Ms Firestone said.

‘Raw stuff’ appeals

“In the past, celebrities would have to put on a brave face, with lots of gloss and glamour … now, there’s a lot more weight and interest in people’s real stories, in what they’re able to share,” Ms Firestone said.

“The raw stuff seems to appeal to viewers in a much broader way.

“Signing up to a show, there has to be some part of them that is willing to explore, or do some work on themselves, in that personal development space.

“If they’re not willing, or prepared to go deep into it, I think they’re naive and perhaps being ill-informed about what they’re about to walk into.

“This isn’t one of those shows that can just have a PR strategy and hold to that. This is going to be psychological work. They will be pushed to their limits. They will be extremely vulnerable.

“And they will be so far from home. Not being able to escape quickly will have a big psychological impact on them.”

Former UK special forces and chief instructor Ant Middleton, who has headlined the first three series with his physical might and interrogatory skills in dark rooms, has had a knack of extracting intimate details about the celebs days after being pushed to their physical and mental limits.

SAS Australia has had multiple controversial contestants in the past, including convicted drug smuggler Schapelle Corby, former NRL player Sam Burgess and former Bra Boys gang member Koby Abberton.

They were thrown out of helicopters into freezing waters, forced to escape from a submerged rolled-over car, and had to drag tyres along dirt tracks for kilometres.

They’ve undergone ‘beastings’ – endless exercises like crawling on the ground and holding a plank position, and entered buildings where tear gas has been deployed to rescue a fake hostage.

One of the most extreme was to withstand a fake kidnapping, where loud music blasted through headphones. It involved sleep deprivation and a mock interrogation that lasted about 48 hours.

Dragged from the mess hall after lockdown, Middleton would ask why they’re there?

Why aren’t they trying hard enough?

He would tell his “directing staff” were going to “strip away all of your facades and expose you for who you really are”.


Breaking point

The Seven network said in a statement on Monday the celebrities will be pushed beyond their limits and subjected to extreme physical endurance, sleep deprivation, interrogation and psychological testing in unforgiving, dramatic terrain.

“Some will reach breaking point and withdraw.”

The question is why they are willing to go on the challenge and then be forced to share their deep and darkest moments with men who have not been their friends during the day.

They knew it would be coming. They’ve watched the show and knew what they were signing on for.

An example of Stockholm Syndrome?

“There are a lot of systems and ways of doing things from a psychological point of view from centuries past, of breaking somebody down, and getting them to strip away all the things they’ve built up in their personal defences,” Ms Firestone said.

“It takes a lot of physical exertion being pushed to your limits, out of your comfort zone, to break away from some of those things.

“The thinking is that once you’ve done that, and deconstructed the enormous construction we all put up after trauma or a difficult event, then you get to the real issues.

“Then … from a vulnerable position, you’re able to unpack some of the things that have been buried for a long time.

“Some schools of thought say this is not a good way to work with people, and there are others who say this is still the way to go, where this show is one where it seems to work.”

Australian Psychological Society president Dr Catriona Davis-McCabe says there’s also elements of what she describes as “post-traumatic growth”.

“Amidst the gruelling conditions and harsh realities of the show, the contestants may experience life-changing moments that have power to unsettle their usual beliefs and force them to think in completely new, more positive ways.

“These moments of authenticity and personal growth may be an enticing outcome that draws contestants in, resulting in them having a greater appreciation for their privilege as a celebrity afterwards.”

Possible big reveals during interrogation

  • Cassie Sainsbury: Better known as Cocaine Cassie after being found guilty of smuggling 5.8 kilograms of cocaine out of Colombia in 2017. Made world headlines, was instantly infamous and is the token criminal in the group
  • Craig McLachlan: Soap opera star was embroiled in scandal for five years after being accused of indecent assault by his Rocky Horror Show co-star Christie Whelan Browne. Repeatedly denied the allegations. Charges were filed by Victoria Police and McLachlan was later cleared in 2020
  • Anthony Mundine: Condemned after posting an anti-vaccination rant on Twitter, has made controversial remarks about the September 11 terror attacks, has little humility and is, well, among the most divisive figures in Australia. Left I’m a Celebrity in 2018 after reaching breaking point
  • Boyd Cordner: Called time on his Sydney Roosters rugby league career after multiple concussions. The Roar wrote he was a man of great decency, integrity and honour, who has never been linked with scandal: “That Cordner grew into the impressive man that he is should be a huge point of pride for his father Chris, who brought up his two boys by himself after mother Lanai tragically died of cancer when Boyd was just four years old.”
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