Interview: Helen Skelton

Helen Skelton is a familiar face not solely from her full-time job as a Blue Peter presenter, but also from her incredible record-breaking role in the Sport Relief trek to the South Pole, a feat that was broadcast and watched by millions this Easter. On top of this acheivement, Helen holds another two world records for her kayaking trip down the Amazon, and is the only person ever to high-wire walk across Battersea Power Station – another feat completed for Sport Relief.

In addition, as part of a Blue Peter challenge, she became only the second woman ever to finish the Namibian 24h Ultra Marathon, a self-reliant race (participants have to carry their own supplies and kit) over 78 miles in temperatures that oscillate between below-freezing at night and over 40°C. Not to lay it on, but she’s also finished the famed Marathon des Sables, which takes place across the Sahara over 156 miles – a competition in which she succeeded where all her Blue Peter colleagues failed.

One would think that to complete these challenges you would need to be a fitness freak, so when asked about how much exercise Helen does ordinarily it was hardly surprising that she replied, ‘I have always been a gym bunny. My family are football fanatics so I have always been around sport but I have never really played anything competitively. I got involved through work, because once you’re in Blue Peter it’s daft not to make the most of the situation and once you see what Sport Relief are doing it’s hard to say no.’

But the expediitions aren’t just what gets seen on screen. When asked what she found the most difficult about her undertakings, she replied, ‘The hardest thing is the training as it is a commitment and your family have to be understanding. You end up avoiding them because you are always in the gym!’

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Her South American expedition consisted of kayaking the entire length of the Amazon River (3,230km) on a solo journey in January 2010, an awe-inspiring feat which won Helen two world records: the longest solo journey by kayak and the longest distance in a kayak in 24 hours by a woman. When I asked Helen if she would do it again she replied, ‘South America was amazing. I would go there again. I enjoyed the Amazon as I had great friends there and we were all in it together. None of us had done anything like that and none of us knew what to expect so it really was an adventure.’

Of the 150m tightrope walk between the two chimneys at Battersea Power Station, on 28th February 2011, Helen modestly claimed, ‘I would like to try it again to check that it was not just a fluke!’

Most lately she jetted off to Antarctica to attempt to reach the South Pole using three different modes of transport: bikes for 103 miles, kite skis for 329 miles and skis for 68 miles, all whilst pulling 82kg of supplies. Unsurprisingly, the training for the trip, which she completed this January, was diverse and intense.

Despite this, Helen continued to look on the bright side of the 24-hour daylight experience, commenting, ‘training for Antarctica was the most fun as it was varied – I cycled, ran, swam and dragged tyres. I never got bored as I could always find something random to do. As long as I was active I knew it was helping.’

Some of the training involved pulling tyres along beaches and kite surfing, which took her from New Zealand to Cape Town to Los Angeles. The five months of training almost every day paid off as it resulted in her claiming yet another world record: kite skiing 100km in just seven hours twenty-eight minutes. Yet rather than dwell on her acheivements, Helen merely praised the location, telling me, ‘Antarctica is the most stunning place I have ever been. It’s a total privilege to get to go there. If you get the chance to go I recommend it.’

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From our interview, it’s readily apparent that Helen Skelton is a woman with some incredible accomplishments under her belt and every intention of continuing to literally lead the way against the toughest challenges nature can throw at her.