How Britain’s new first lady of fitness Lucy Wyndham-Read suffered heartbreak aged 21 when her fiancé died in an accident while playing around with a gun with an Army colleague
At just 5ft 3in and a dress size eight, Lucy Wyndham-Read is a tiny presence but one who packs a formidable punch — metaphorically speaking.
Here we are, just a couple of minutes into one of her hugely popular seven-minute workouts and I am huffing and puffing away, while Lucy showcases her high kicks and lunges with seasoned ease.
I’m far from unfit, but she is certainly putting me through my paces — still, at least I know the pain isn’t going to last long.
That fast turnaround approach is proving very attractive: last week it emerged that Lucy’s easy-to-follow speedy workouts on YouTube had racked up more than 58 million views, knocking no less than one Joe Wicks off his perch to make hers the most popular fitness channel in the UK.
Lucy’s easy-to-follow speedy workouts on YouTube have racked up more than 58 million views
Lucy with teenage sweetheart Mike, who died in a tragic accident when she was just 21
Given the affection for Wicks — the nation’s self-anointed PE teacher who got the country working out daily during lockdown — this is no mean feat, and one which Lucy, 49, can’t quite get her head around either.
‘It’s crazy isn’t it?’ she says. ‘I honestly didn’t expect it. For years I’ve just been putting my stuff out there for the love of it. More than anything I’m just pleased people are getting something from it.’
Lucy, a former Army corporal, has a sunny nature but it conceals a tale of heartbreaking tragedy: when she was 21 her fiancé, Mike, a fellow soldier, died in a horrific accident while horsing around with a gun with an Army colleague in a Russian roulette-style game.
In an instant, the life the childhood sweethearts had planned together was destroyed.
Lucy admits she has never quite got over the tragedy. She has never married or had children, and says that Mike, a man she describes as ‘having a beautiful soul’, has always been by her side.
‘He’s irreplaceable,’ she says. ‘He was ‘The One’ and there was never going to be anyone to take his place. But he’s been there with me on this whole journey and I know that he would be so proud of me now.
Lucy was promoted to corporal and was tasked with whipping new recruits into shape, alongside training as an Army dental nurse
‘Whenever there have been low moments — moments when I wanted to give up — I’ve felt his presence. Funny little things have happened which have felt like little signs that he is encouraging me to carry on.’
The couple met when they were just 15 at an Army cadet camp for which Lucy, from Rusper, West Sussex, had signed up on a whim.
On paper it was an odd choice for a girl who had grown up in a creative household: her father, Martin, 75, is a folk singer while her mother, Danni, also 75, is an artist. But after being bullied at school, Lucy wanted to do something to boost her confidence.
‘I was one of the shy, clumsy girls, never one of the popular ones. I wanted to do something that would toughen me up and challenge me,’ she says.
She and Mike quickly became inseparable, their relationship continuing to flourish, even after he joined the Army at 18 and was posted to Botswana.
He flew back to the UK on Lucy’s 18th birthday to propose — and she said yes.
Shortly after, she joined up, too, in part inspired by her fiancé, in part determined to prove wrong the naysayers who thought there was no way she could handle life in the military — perhaps with good cause. She laughs as she recalls arriving for her initial 12 weeks’ training at Aldershot Barracks, Hampshire, in July 1989 in a flowery dress, and being greeted by ‘a group of girls with skinheads, tattoos and massive rucksacks’.
‘I must have looked like something from the Goldie Hawn film, Private Benjamin’. She adds: ‘Part of me wanted to turn round and go home.’
But there was no going back and Lucy, who says she was a typical teenage couch potato, found that she thrived on the gruelling regime of endless runs and press-ups.
‘We were consistently pushed out of our comfort zone and there were lots of times I wanted to give up, but I loved the way I could see my body changing — becoming leaner and stronger.
‘I grew mentally stronger, too. I’d become that woman I’d dreamed of being,’ she says.
She credits those early weeks as laying the groundwork for her future fitness, as well as imbuing her with a sense of discipline.
She did well, getting promoted to corporal and being tasked with whipping new recruits into shape, alongside training as an Army dental nurse — a career she planned to pursue once she left the Army with Mike. ‘He was often posted overseas, so we only saw each other a handful of times a year,’ she says.
‘But we wrote endless letters. I used to live for the arrival of his blue air mail.’
His last missive, which arrived soon after his death, remains unopened; Lucy has never been able to bring herself to read it. Shortly before the accident, Mike learned he’d been accepted by the fire service and, it seemed, everything was falling into place. ‘We had planned a whole life together,’ she says.
Those dreams were shattered in August 1992 when — just weeks before Mike was due to be discharged — Lucy’s doorbell rang at 3am.
Lucy says she wants her workouts to be something people ‘wake up everyday and want to do’
At the door was a man in military uniform and she knew instantly ‘something terrible’ had happened. Her fiancé had been shot dead in an accident at point-blank range at his barracks in Belfast.
While putting away their weapons, Mike and another soldier liked to play a game, emptying their guns of bullets as ordered — but then placing the guns in each other’s mouth and pulling the trigger.
This time something went horrifically wrong: the other soldier — later discovered to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder — had forgotten to remove all his bullets.
‘I was completely numb,’ recalls Lucy. ‘He was my world and then that world was just taken away.’
There was a full military funeral, and Lucy accompanied Mike’s father to Belfast to lay a wreath at the spot where Mike had died in such a senseless way.
Yet, she insists, she never felt anger, just profound sadness.
‘He was 22, due to leave the Army six weeks later. It was such a tragic, dreadful waste of a life,’ she says.
She feels the same about the man who pulled the trigger, who was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison.
‘I wrote him a letter to say that I knew it was an accident and that I forgave him,’ she says. ‘I know that was what Mike would have wanted me to do.’
Lucy was granted two weeks’ compassionate leave from the Army, but on her return she found her heart was no longer in it. There was little support from senior officers and, left largely to her own devices, she found solace in exercise. ‘I’d run for miles and started creating my own routines. It was my release, helping to lift the sadness,’ she recalls.
She hung on in the Army for another year until her discharge in 1994 after five years’ service.
‘I knew I needed to do something different, and I knew that keeping fit had helped me so much that it seemed a natural path to follow,’ she says.
Lucy took an exercise qualification — the first of many — and started to work in a gym in Surrey doing personal training.
‘I remember how little equipment the gym had on the floor, given the number of members — but the man in charge said only 11 per cent of members ever used the gym,’ she says. ‘It became my mission to reach the people who didn’t go.’
Lucy took an exercise qualification — the first of many — and started to work in a gym in Surrey doing personal training
Building a career hasn’t been easy — Lucy admits she’s often led a hand–to-mouth existence, particularly after the 2008 recession.
‘That hit personal trainers hard,’ she says. ‘But I didn’t want to give up, even though at times I struggled to keep a roof over my head.’ She released her first YouTube video in 2012, focusing on easy-to-follow, short workouts that targeted specific areas of the body.
‘I’ve always said that it’s got to be do-able from the start, because otherwise people are put off straightaway or they don’t stick to it,’ she says. ‘When I did my research, I looked at a lot of ‘beginners’ workouts’ and thought, ‘These aren’t for beginners.’
‘People are left feeling upset and that exercise is not for them. So, I created beginners’ workouts that really are actually designed for a beginner.’
Indeed, there is something for everyone on Lucy’s channel — pregnant women, new mums, people in wheelchairs, the elderly.
Lucy filmed her early videos using her iPhone balanced on cereal boxes, because she couldn’t afford a tripod. To this day, she still eschews high-tech equipment.
At first, she was lucky to get a dozen views a day but, undeterred, she kept going, and for the next two-and-a-half years she uploaded a new video to YouTube every single day (to date, she has recorded just under 1,000 of them).
She has made very little money — she lives in a small one-bedroom flat — and continues her personal training and, after getting a nutritionist qualification, writing ebooks on women’s fitness and health. ‘It has never been about money,’ she says. ‘I get a lot of pleasure helping people see the benefit of exercise.’
It’s only in the past two years that she’s started to become well-known, largely down to her decision in 2018 to create a series of seven-minute workouts.
Lockdown — with more people at home looking for fitness routines — has boosted her business hugely, her follower numbers soaring.
She has garnered 1.4 million on YouTube, 187,000 on Instagram and a tribe of devoted followers known as ‘The Lucy Squad’, many of whom write to her to say her routines have changed their lives.
‘Honestly, that means more to me than anything,’ she says. ‘I managed to turn my hardship round, and it’s wonderful to think I can help others do the same.’
And what do you think Mike would have made of it, I ask.
‘I think he’d be over the moon,’ Lucy replies.
‘Life didn’t work out the way I planned, but I love what I do; I have a wonderful family and friends. In so many ways I am lucky.’
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