Monday interview: Sally-Anne Hunter, founder of Commando Spirit

Sally-Anne Hunter has taken on some of the toughest challenges usually reserved for elite members of the military. Picture: Contributed
Sally-Anne Hunter has taken on some of the toughest challenges usually reserved for elite members of the military. Picture: Contributed
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After a lengthy and determined march up and down the high street of Bromley, Sally-Anne Hunter landed her first job as a curtain hanger at the age of 15. What she didn’t tell her new employer was that she didn’t know how to hang curtains. Instead, she spent the next week figuring it out before reporting for duty the following Saturday.

In many ways it sums up the woman who, despite the rheumatoid arthritis throughout her body, has taken on some of the toughest challenges usually reserved for elite members of the military. Among other things, she has overcome assault courses and escaped from an under-water helicopter, and is one of only four women to have abseiled the Shard, western Europe’s tallest building.

“I never really thought there was anything that I couldn’t do,” says Hunter, who today runs Commando Spirit, an event organiser that also raises money to help injured Marines, their families and relatives of those killed in the line of duty.

“I was very lucky that I grew up in an age when we had Cagney & Lacey, we had a female prime minister, and I had a father who would get me out building in the garage – what I am saying is there were no gender barriers, as far as I was concerned.”

She studied law at the University of Birmingham and qualified with the Council of Legal Education in London before joining Thames TV in 1988 as an in-house specialist in copyright, contract and media law. Involved in the theatre from her days at university, Hunter spent her spare time during this stint as a “baby barrister” organising Fringe Sunday of the Edinburgh Festival, a hefty undertaking only made possible by the fact that courts are not in session during the month of August.

While in London she “met a kilt” who would become her first husband, and in 1991 they moved to Edinburgh where Hunter decided to pursue a new career rather than re-train under Scots law. Based on her active sideline in events, she went full-time into fundraising, organising challenges to raise money for charities such as Crisis, Breakthrough, Scope and Operation Raleigh.

She spent 13 years running her own company and although the marriage didn’t last, Hunter remained in Scotland with daughter Hannah and son Callum. She joined Caledonian Challenge in 2004 as a member of the board and management team, which would lead to her first involvement with the Commandos three years later.

Faced with the problem of getting 1,500 people across Loch Lomond along the traditional 54-mile route of the Caledonian Challenge, Hunter decided to call on the nearby Fleet Protection Group Royal Marines, the unit charged with protecting nuclear weapons at Faslane.

“I literally went along and knocked on the door,” she recalls.

“That is what you have to do as an entrepreneur, you have to have no fear to do these things. If you are passionate about what you are doing, that passion will ignite others.”

That set off a chain of events that culminated in Commando Spirit, which began as part of Hunter’s Lifetime Challenge Events in 2011. Designed to provide a “taste of what it means to be a commando”, it has to date raised just shy of £1 million for veterans and their families in need.

The structure of the organisation is getting an overhaul so it can supply more charitable support as the number of major events rises from three in 2015 to seven in the current year. As many as 1,000 people are expected to take part in various challenges during 2016, including 200 at the first-ever Commando Games to be held in September at Achnacarry, the historical training ground of the original commandos in the Second World War.

The games will include Survive the Yomp, a 30-mile trek, and the nine-mile speed march known as the Commando March. There is also the Commando Endurance Course of mud runs and tunnels, and the Commando Assault Course of rope bridges and the infamous death slide.

The expansion comes after Hunter identified Commando Spirit’s growth potential while working with Entrepreneurial Spark. During that time she also hooked up with Sporting Chance Initiative, the government-funded hub that assists SMEs in a wide variety of fitness-related businesses ranging from outdoor pursuits and personal training to the manufacture and retailing of performance drinks, specialist clothing and kit.

In addition to open events like the upcoming games, Commando Spirit also provides bespoke training for clients such as Standard Life, the BBC and Scotland’s national women’s rugby team.

It is a finalist for this year’s title of Sports Business of the Year, one of five categories being recognised at the Sports Business Innovation Awards hosted by Sporting Chance on Thursday in Glasgow.

“I have been raising money for good causes for 25 years, and it’s great to be doing it now for the Marines,” says Hunter, who is now re-married to a former Major from the Royal Marines.

“They are great at helping others, but not very good at taking help themselves.”

30-second CV

Born: Yorkshire, 1964

Raised: We moved around quite a bit – Yorkshire, 
Hereford and Kent.

Education: Langley Park School for Girls; University of Birmingham.

Ambition at school: To do whatever I thought I could do.

First job: Hanging curtains.

Favourite mode of transport: Walking, and I also like to fly. I learned how to fly a microlight in 2007.

Can’t live without: My children, who I am daftly proud of.

Kindle or book: Book – I like to be able to turn the pages, and pass it on.

Favourite sport: It is really important with my condition to remain active, but I don’t have a specific sport.

Can’t live without: My old Land Rover and my new iPhone.

What makes you angry: Sexism of any sort makes me angry.