Step­ping out of their com­fort zone

Leg­end of Ir­ish rugby, Peter Stringer and ‘Young Of­fend­ers’ star, Demi Isaac Ovi­awe, are fly­ing the flag for Cork on ‘Danc­ing With the Stars’. Es­ther McCarthy catches up with them in re­hearsals

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Cover Story -

AS A BOY Peter Stringer would work on per­fect­ing his game, de­ter­mined to be so strong and fo­cused that no coach could leave him on the bench based on his height (he is 5ft 7in). In a game dom­i­nated by big men he achieved his goals, be­com­ing one of the great­est play­ers ever to wear an Ire­land and Mun­ster jersey.

Now, he says, it’s back to the plan­ning board - be­cause when he takes to the stage for Danc­ing with the Stars this week­end he’ll be very much out of his com­fort zone. He would not, he says, be known for his prow­ess on the dance floor.

“That’s very much the case. I sup­pose be­ing a non­drinker, you’re never re­ally brave enough to ven­ture onto the dance floor on a night out, you al­ways re­ally shy away from all that. When peo­ple say: ‘I’m not re­ally a dancer’ they prob­a­bly have some ex­pe­ri­ence on the dance floor of throw­ing some moves. But I gen­uinely haven’t — I’ve had maybe a five-minute dance at my wed­ding and that was about it. I’m go­ing into it very blind and in­ex­pe­ri­enced but I’m hop­ing that through rep­e­ti­tion and com­mit­ment that I’ll be able to learn a few things.” Though he has main­tained his strength and fit­ness since re­tir­ing from a stel­lar sport­ing ca­reer last sum­mer, which will help with the flex­i­bil­ity and hours of re­hearsals, it’s the ac­tual foot­work that will bring him his big­gest chal­lenges.

“The whole thing is ter­ri­fy­ing!” he laughs. “I’m al­ways look­ing af­ter my­self in terms of go­ing to the gym. and I’m used to putting my body in cer­tain dif­fer­ent po­si­tions, with flex­i­bil­ity and mo­bil­ity. It’s prob­a­bly just the two left feet that are the is­sue at the mo­ment!

“You’re re­hears­ing for five or six hours ev­ery day and your body is in dif­fer­ent po­si­tions to what you’re used to. You do have aches and pains, but through­out my ca­reer it was about me look­ing af­ter my­self, be­ing ready for any chal­lenge. This came along, and I’d like to think that I’m as pre­pared as I can be in terms of my body be­ing ready.

“I think I’m some­one who would re­gret not do­ing ev­ery­thing I could to be in the best pos­si­ble shape. It’s all about be­ing that 24-hour ath­lete, that’s been the ap­proach I’ve taken. The easy bit is be­ing told what to do by the coaches and tak­ing di­rec­tion. It’s when you go home and you have to man­age you own re­cov­ery, your own prepa­ra­tion, your own food, that’s where I re­ally looked af­ter my­self. I wanted to do ev­ery­thing I pos­si­bly could to keep play­ing as long as I wanted to.” As well as his re­mark­able ca­reer longevity, Stringer was also fo­cused from the early days on not let­ting his height hold him back on the sport­ing stage.

“Right from day one when I first started play­ing I re­alised I was much smaller than ev­ery­body else. I wanted to make sure first and fore­most that the skills that I was able to bring to the pitch, with my fit­ness, with my speed, with my pass­ing, they were the el­e­ments that I re­ally worked on in the early days. I didn’t want to give any coaches any rea­son not to pick me just be­cause I was small. I wanted to make sure that I had a skillset that was good enough for them not to leave me out of a team.

“Com­ing from a rig­or­ous world in rugby where you have to learn your pat­terns and your plays, I hope I can apply that to my danc­ing rather that be­ing able to go out on the dance­floor and freestyle, which re­ally isn’t my strength at all.” It’s not the first time Stringer has found him­self very con­tent to be out­side his com­fort zone. A few years ago, he tells me, he de­cided to train for a pi­lot’s li­cense. It was some­thing he’d wanted to do for some time and over a few months he went for it.

“I went away and got my pi­lot li­cense very ran­domly, in an off sea­son. Again, ter­ri­fy­ing - but it was just the chal­lenge of do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent, to learn a new skill. I was able to do it in four or five months, to be able to fly a small plane. That was a box that was ticked on the list.

“Rugby, ob­vi­ously, was my num­ber one and when I was play­ing it was all I wanted to do. I wanted to be as good as I could be and I didn’t re­ally want to be dis­tracted by a lot of other things. When I do some­thing I want to do it prop­erly, to be com­mit­ted. I didn’t want to get to the stage (with Danc­ing With the Stars) where March or April came and I re­gret­ted not do­ing it. It’s too easy to say no.” Last sum­mer, Stringer hung up the boots on a pro­fes­sional ca­reer that spanned two spec­tac­u­lar decades. Be­ing able to play at such a level un­til the age of 40 was an­other sign of his ded­i­ca­tion to his health and fit­ness. Other pro­fes­sional sports­peo­ple have spo­ken of the pain of re­tir­ing, of miss­ing the buzz of a crowd’s roar or the ca­ma­raderie of the com­pet­i­tive team sport ex­pe­ri­ence. When sport is all you’ve known it can be dif­fi­cult to start over, but he’s philo­soph­i­cal about change, and ready to em­brace it. For ex­am­ple, he’s spent re­cent months among fam­ily in his na­tive Cork en­joy­ing the catch-ups and the down­time.

“You know what? It’s ac­tu­ally been re­ally nice. I’m lucky to have been pitch side for a lot of big games and you still get a sense that you’re at the games, you get to re­live the at­mos­phere. But I’m never go­ing to re­place that team ca­ma­raderie, ar­riv­ing ev­ery sin­gle morn­ing, see­ing your clos­est friends, do­ing what you love do­ing and hav­ing that kind of ban­ter, that friend­ship in a team sport.

“I think a lot of peo­ple do strug­gle when they step away from it. It’s some­thing that they’re al­ways long­ing for. I’ve spo­ken to a lot of guys and I don’t think you’ll ever, ever re­place what you had in that team set up. The fact that I un­der­stand that and I’ve ac­cepted that, I think it’s eas­ier to move on and you get highs from other things - your fam­ily, and other chal­lenges like this. New peo­ple and new en­vi­ron­ments.

“It’s not a case of long­ing for what I had be­fore. I had 20 years of be­ing in a pro­fes­sional setup and it was un­be­liev­able. There is that

“I’ve had maybe a five-minute dance at my wed­ding and that was about it

kind of void but I un­der­stand that it’s not go­ing to be re­ally pos­si­ble to re­place what I had. The main chal­lenge for guys is re­al­is­ing that and ac­cept­ing that. What we had was re­ally spe­cial. You think of the good times and you don’t re­ally dwell on them be­ing gone. You just re­mem­ber the fun that you had and look back at it fondly.” In any case, he has had the most won­der­ful of dis­trac­tions. In 2017, he and his wife Deb­bie wel­comed baby Noah into the world. He’s now 21 months old and his dot­ing dad is very happy to spend as much time with him as pos­si­ble.

“I just didn’t want to be ab­sent for a lot of his early days and it’s been amaz­ing. To be able to come back to Ire­land in the last six months, wak­ing up ev­ery day, has been in­cred­i­ble. Even if you don’t see him for the week, when I’m in Dublin for the show, you see so many lit­tle changes with him. It might seem like the sim­plest and most ba­sic thing, but to hear a new word com­ing out of his mouth, you’re like: ‘where did that come from?’ It’s so nice to see him de­velop and grow, be­come his own lit­tle per­son. Deb­bie’s fam­ily and my fam­ily are in Cork as well and the grand­par­ents love spend­ing time with him, es­pe­cially af­ter be­ing away the last num­ber of years.

“Once I re­tired dur­ing the sum­mer I just made a de­ci­sion to take six months away and come back to Cork. We’d been in the UK for six years and to be back among fam­ily, with our son, to be able to spend a bit of time with them has just been great.”

She made the na­tion smile as Conor’s first se­ri­ous girl­friend on hit TV se­ries The Young Of­fend­ers now Demi Isaac Ovi­awe is em­brac­ing her in­ner glit­ter princess as she pre­pares to make her de­but in RTÉ’s Danc­ing With the Stars. It’s an as­pect to her she didn’t even know ex­isted - like any teenager Demi loves her fash­ion but never thought of her­self as a glit­tery girl.

“I’m not a big fan of glit­ter or dra­matic make-up. But since I started the show and try­ing on all of my cos­tumes, I love it - the more glit­ter the bet­ter. The big­ger the eye­shadow, the big­ger the hair, give me more! I never thought of my­self as be­ing that sort of per­son. I went and bought sparkly dresses be­cause I love glit­ter now!” she says, the sur­prise still ev­i­dent in her voice.

What a year it’s been for the 18 year old from Mal­low. This time last year, view­ers

hadn’t yet seen Peter Foott’s ter­rific TV se­ries of The Young Of­fend­ers, in which she and co-star and friend Jennifer Barry played the girl­friends who put man­ners on Cork’s most love­able young rogues, Jock and Conor.

The se­ries was a smash hit both here and in the UK, re­turn­ing for the re­cent Christ­mas spe­cial and with a sec­ond se­ries al­ready confirmed. She landed the role af­ter a fam­ily friend told her about the orig­i­nal film: “about two dopes go­ing around Cork look­ing for co­caine” and en­cour­aged her to au­di­tion for the TV se­ries. It was a se­ries full of hi­lar­i­ous mo­ments, from the Frank & Wal­ters bus sin­ga­long to Billy Mur­phy’s many es­capades. But there were in­cred­i­bly mov­ing mo­ments too, and Demi’s favourite scene in the en­tire se­ries was when the four friends sang to­gether dur­ing an emo­tional visit to Jock’s mum’s grave.

“I think it was episode three, when we’re at the grave singing ‘With or With­out You’ by U2. It had a spe­cial place in my heart per­son­ally, be­cause I lost my mum at a young age. So for me, I could un­der­stand, I could re­late to Jock’s emo­tions and what he was go­ing through as a char­ac­ter. Ev­ery­thing you saw on my face is what I was feel­ing per­son­ally. It was just a very nice and sim­ple scene but there was still a lot of cute­ness and Young Of­fender-ness to it.” Demi’s mum, Joy, and dad, Joe, moved to Ire­land from Nige­ria to start a new life when she was a tod­dler and set­tled in Mal­low. Joy passed away from breast can­cer when she was just five, and tragedy would strike again a decade later when Joe would die from com­pli­ca­tions caused by a brain tu­mour.

Joe had found love again with Kim, Demi’s step mum, to whom she re­mains very close. Her un­cle, Courage, and broth­ers Obrian, Amen, Jack and Noah will also be cheer­ing her on as she takes part in Danc­ing With the Stars.

Her main mo­ti­va­tor is to make her par­ents and fam­ily proud, she says. “I was al­ways close to my dad, Joe. He was my dad. He was funny, he was se­ri­ous, he was lov­ing, he was pas­sion­ate. If you needed some­thing he’d break his back to get it for you. He’d al­ways do what he needed to do for us, es­pe­cially for my fam­ily in Nige­ria, for my grand­mother who is still alive. He would bend over back­wards to make sure they were happy and they were com­fort­able. He’d do any­thing he could, go out of his way to please ev­ery­one.

“When I do stuff like this,

The Young Of­fend­ers or

Danc­ing With the Stars, yes I’m do­ing it for my­self. But also I’m like: ‘If I do some­thing like this am I go­ing to get more op­por­tu­ni­ties to make my fam­ily happy? To please my mum and dad or make my broth­ers happy?’ I kind of have my dad’s men­tal­ity about feel­ing pas­sion­ately about his loved ones and car­ing for his loved ones more than any­thing else.” It was while lark­ing around with new DWTS pre­sen­ter Jennifer Zam­par­elli at an RTÉ launch in Au­gust that pro­duc­ers first con­sid­ered her. “I did a quick lit­tle in­ter­view with Jennifer. I was hav­ing a laugh with her and I got an email two weeks later ask­ing if I was up for Danc­ing With the Stars. It was a long process of me think­ing: ‘I have my Leav­ing Cert, is this some­thing that I’d like to do? Do I want to ven­ture out of act­ing for a while and kind of dab­ble in some­thing else?’” Kim and her un­cle ac­com­pa­nied her to meet the show’s pro­duc­ers. “I was there and they were ask­ing me ques­tions about my fam­ily and my­self, what I was do­ing at school, just to get the kind of per­son I am. I was talk­ing away with them for about an hour and a half and it felt nat­u­ral, it felt re­ally good. “They did ask me if I had danc­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. I’d done pan­tomimes at school and learned to dance. I’ve been act­ing since I was small and singing as well. So I kind of knew what I was get­ting into be­fore I was on the show. It’s not that you have to be the strong­est, it’s are you up for learn­ing how to dance.” It’s been a door­way to a whole new world she didn’t know of, of cha-chas and tan­goes, and she’s found it fas­ci­nat­ing. “I never knew there were dif­fer­ent types of shoes for danc­ing un­til I was on the show. I was like: ‘What’s a Latin shoe?’ It has this kind of heel and this kind of strap. I thought: ‘Oh my God I know noth­ing’. It’s like go­ing to school. The teacher asks you a ques­tion and if you don’t know, you re­vise, and you come back the fol­low­ing day.” She says that when she was first asked, she felt grate­ful that pro­duc­ers thought she was ma­ture enough to go on the show. She spoke with fam­ily, the prin­ci­pal and ca­reer guid­ance staff at her school, Davis Col­lege in Mal­low, who have been very sup­port­ive.

She jokes that - just like when she said she was cast in The Young Of­fend­ers some of her class­mates and teach­ers ini­tially thought she was kid­ding. Af­ter be­ing un­veiled as one of the con­tes­tants on The Late Late Show, she felt “like a celebrity” at school the fol­low­ing week. She has been re­hears­ing for sev­eral weeks and is thor­oughly en­joy­ing the new chal­lenge. “I’m so com­pet­i­tive. It’s not even that I want to win - I want to make it far enough. If I win it then ob­vi­ously that would be re­ally great but I’m not here to get knocked out eas­ily. Ev­ery­one is lovely, the dancers, stars, pro­duc­tion staff are all so nice. I’ve not met one bad per­son which I’m su­per grate­ful for.” While the re­hearsals are phys­i­cally chal­leng­ing, Demi has been lov­ing the process so far. “Ob­vi­ously you’re stiff, be­cause you’re stretch­ing dif­fer­ent mus­cles in your body. I have not been in agony. My dance part­ner pushes my lim­its. I’ve ac­tu­ally been very grate­ful with tech­nique that it hasn’t been a very dif­fi­cult dance so far.” While she has al­ways loved danc­ing when out with friends, she adds: “I wouldn’t do the chacha or the salsa. I would just do my own thing.” But tak­ing part in the show has given her a new-found ap­pre­ci­a­tion for ball­room, clas­si­cal and Latin danc­ing, and she’s keen to learn more. Which dance is she most look­ing for­ward to tak­ing on?

“I wanna say the salsa. I’ve seen a few peo­ple in the com­pe­ti­tion who are do­ing the salsa now and it looks like a very com­plex dance. It’s one of those dances that’s re­ally pas­sion­ate and sen­sual. I can’t wait to see what I can do with it. That’s my num­ber one dance that I’m look­ing for­ward to.” As the stars and dancers pre­pare for the live shows to be­gin, Demi is ex­cited at the prospect of com­pet­ing on one of RTÉ’s big­gest shows of the year. It’s been an ex­tra­or­di­nary 12 months, but like The Young Of­fend­ers, she’s ready to em­brace what­ever op­por­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges DWTS brings her way. “I wouldn’t change the way any­thing went. The way I got The Young Of­fend­ers and the way I got this, I would keep it and I wouldn’t change any­thing.”

Danc­ing with the Stars

■ starts to­mor­row at 6.30pm on RTÉ One

“It

was a long process of me think­ing, ‘I have my Leav­ing Cert, is this some­thing that I’d like to do?’

Peter Stringer and Demi Isaac Ovi­awe, two this year’s con­tes­tants on Danc­ing With The Stars.

Pic­ture Moya Nolan

Peter Stringer in re­hearsals for Danc­ing With The Stars.

Pic­ture Dan Line­han

<< Demi Isaac Ovi­awe, one of the stars of The Young Of­fend­ers, makes her danc­ing de­but to­mor­row night.

Pic­ture Dan Line­han

Demi Isaac Ovi­awe with three of her broth­ers, Amen, Jack and Obrien at Mal­low Cas­tle, Co Cork.

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