MF catches up with the straight-talking trainer to talk fitness, fame – and how he handled one of his greatest challenges: taking on an all-women team on TV’s The Biggest Loser.
Words: Paul Robinson
Meet me at the gates at 1200, Commando Steve instructs me on the phone, then hangs up.
I follow his instructions and arrive a few minutes early, only to find him there already, waiting. I see him glance at his watch and I find myself doing the same, double-checking that I was, in fact, early. At 185cm (6’1”) and weighing in at just over 90kg of pure muscle, he’s a force to be reckoned with. For a moment, I wonder if what he’s seeing behind the Oakleys is just like the Terminator – all red, with a computer assessing my every move. Thankfully, his processor decided I wasn’t a threat and he smiles.
We’re at the third Sydney Tattoo and Body Art Expo in Sydney’s Homebush Olympic precinct. After a quick catch-up, we wander inside and check out the ink. Every few steps, Steve is asked for a photo by everyone from kids to older couples. The Ten Network’s The Biggest Loser has definitely thrown the former Special Forces soldier into the limelight.
“I don’t mind being stopped,” says Steve, as we negotiate the crowds. “It’s good to know people are watching and getting something out of what we do.” Unlike many celebrities, he chats openly with anyone game enough to initiate a conversation or ask for a snap.
Celebrity status was never on Steve’s agenda growing up in the suburbs just north of Brisbane. As the eldest of four boys, his childhood was typical of the day. “Lots of sport and mucking around outside. Not like most kids today, we actually loved being active and outside.” He says his step-father (who he calls Dad) was the perfect role model. “Dad’s attitude and behaviour really helped mould my morals and outlook on life. He taught me the value of working hard and that if I was going to do something, to do it properly. Mum was at home with us boys,” he remembers with a grin. “That’s a pretty full-on job, raising four active boys. But she did a good job.
“Initially, I was thinking I’d be a builder. Lots of the guys in my family were builders, carpenters and the like. I figured I’d just follow that line of work too, but there were jack-shit apprenticeships going when I finished school. It just wasn’t going to happen, so I started looking into the military as a career. The Infantry looked like something that’d be interesting, so I thought, ‘Yeah, why not? I’ll give that a go’.” Steve signed on the dotted line, said goodbye to his loved ones and shipped off to the army. “Basic training at Kapooka [in Wagga Wagga, NSW] was a kick in the nuts, but I enjoyed it. I just couldn’t wait to get to my unit.”
Steve did make it to his infantry unit of choice, based in Sydney, only to arrive in time for a major restructure. “My mates and I got told we could either ship off to another unit or stay and have a go at the Commando selection course. If we passed, we would be Special Forces. It was a no-brainer for me. The course sounded really challenging, so naturally it caught my interest. Once I’d made up my mind, the Commandos was where I wanted to be. Failure just wasn’t an option.” He put his name forward, passed first time around, then spent the next 10 years serving as one of Australia’s elite soldiers.
After a decade in green, it was time for Steve to make a move into the civilian world. “It can be a tough transition for a lot of people,” he notes. “It’s a huge culture shock. I knew I just had to keep busy, so I worked on some construction sites while I put myself through courses to become a trainer. That’s around the time I got introduced to CrossFit.”
At first, the hardened soldier was a little hesitant to try it out, but gave it a shot. “It kicked my arse!” he laughs. At last a new fitness craze had lived up to the hype and Steve was hooked. He flew himself to the US
to get some proper instruction and also to become certified as an instructor. “Yeah, I guess I was the first person in Australia to really do that. Other people have done it since, but I was the first.”
Steve brought his skills back to Australia and decided there was a market here for CrossFit. “I knew I had to open a purpose-built CrossFit gym. I told my closest mates about it. A few people said they were in, they’d open it with me, but they all pulled out. I spoke to an Army mate, Mick Shaw, about it and eventually we opened the first real CrossFit box in the country, CrossFit Effects [CFX] over in Kogarah [in Sydney].”
“I came screaming up the driveway, yelling instructions. It scared the shit out of people.”
In 2005, Steve was contacted by a friend about a new TV series called The Biggest Loser. They were looking for a former soldier who was a qualified trainer to join the resident coaches on the show. “I wasn’t sure it was really for me at first, but I gave it a go anyway. The first time I did an audition, I really went for it. I came screaming up the driveway, yelling instructions. It scared the shit out of people.” Needless to say, Steve landed the part and the persona of The Commando was born.
Since that time, Commando Steve has brought a tough-love, heavy-hitting style of training into the series and has coached the winner or runner-up pretty much every season. “Before this season, I’d work only with a few contestants, like Bob and Nathan the other year in Queensland, or Phil and Joe last year up in the Northern Territory. This year, though, I’ve joined the resident trainers, Shannan and Michelle, so I’m there all the time. There’s a fourth trainer too, Tiffany. I’ve got my own team, which is pretty cool.”
In contrast to everything Steve has been associated with in the past, his team this season, the Moon family, is made up of two sets of sisters. “When I found out I had a team of four women…” he re-enacts his stunned face. “They’re all women! I grew up with brothers, the Army – all guys. Now I’m here with four women.
What the hell do I do?”
It’s been a challenge learning to deal with such a different dynamic. “I’m just not used to dealing with women like that. My Army unit was all guys, and I did that for 10 years! The other thing is that these women all have lots of issues, their own issues, and now they’ve been thrown together so they have to deal with each other’s problems as well.”
“They’ve got a lot of excuses,” he notes. Steve doesn’t take excuses very well. His life motto, even his business slogan, is ‘There Are No Excuses!’ “These women, actually all the contestants, have been making excuses their whole lives, so much so that I don’t think it’s even a conscious decision now, it just happens. They get really good at manipulating things to match their excuses and their decisions. But then they get thrown in the mix with me and want me to bend and change to suit them, and I’m, like, ‘No way. Look where your excuses have gotten you so far. Why would I change my methods? My stuff works – yours doesn’t. Deal with it.’ These women have tough real-life issues, but they have two choices: stay the way you are or do something about it. It’s simple. Make your decision.”
As we continue to walk through the tattoo expo, Steve is stopped yet again. “Umm, excuse me, are you that guy from The Biggest Loser? The Commando?” asks an obviously nervous guy in his mid-20s.
“Maybe,” Steve answers, playing on the guy’s nerves. His voice is so distinctive it gives the game away.
“I knew it was you!” the guy shouts. “Hey, honey – I told you it was him,” he says, looking over to a girl a few metres away. She holds up a camera as if to cue a question. “Oh yeah, can my girlfriend get a photo with you?”
Steve laughs and the girl walks over for the shot. Once the couple trots off, I turn to Steve and confess my thoughts on what just happened. “That’s just weird, man.”
He laughs again and we continue walking. Up ahead, we find a man being tattooed by the traditional steel hand-held prong dipped in ink. “Now that would test your steel,” says Steve. He stops to watch, mesmerised. Finally, he breaks his trance and looks me in the eye. “Brilliant.”
the future’s so bright…
With this season of The Biggest Loser drawing closer to the finale, I ask about the future for The Commando.
“I’ve a fair bit lined up,” he answers confidently. “The show keeps me busy, plus all the promotional work that goes with it. I’ve got six boot camps lined up in Queensland, all booked out, and I’m organising some in Sydney. Then there are the corporate jobs – team-building and the like.”
Apart from his life as The Commando, the athlete Steve Willis is highly sought-after in the CrossFit world, both in Australia and abroad. After placing an incredible fourth in the 2009 CrossFit Games held in California and being one of the country’s original CrossFitters, he constantly travels to gyms as a guest speaker and trainer. “I enjoy that. It’s great to see CrossFit growing so well in Australia. We’ve some great athletes. Although I’m moving away from CFX, I’m still an avid CrossFit athlete and coach. I just don’t have the time to run the gym.”
Looking at Steve’s calendar for the next 18 months, he’s booked solid. This work schedule alone would be excuse enough for most men to lay off their own training, but not Steve. What about his young family, which is set to expand in late July? Surely that would put a dent in his training and nutrition regimen? Not for Steve. “There’s that word again. Sure I have plenty of excuses to ease up, but they’re just that – excuses. I train because I make time to train; I eat well because I make the effort to plan ahead. The alternative is to eat crap and get lazy, but is that even an option? Not a fucking chance.”