Cork fitness instructor: 'Army training nearly broke me... but I adored every second'

An army officer turned fitness instructor, Debbie Keane found herself unemployed when Covid hit — until she moved her business online, writes LINDA KENNY
Cork fitness instructor: 'Army training nearly broke me... but I adored every second'

Debbie Keane, former army officer turned personal trainer. Picture: Larry Cummins

DEBBIE Keane’s business, Fitness with Debbie, collapsed in March with the first lockdown, but moving online has seen it thrive and blossom in these restrictive times.

“I have always been sports mad,” admits fitness guru Debbie.

“I played basketball with Neptune and Cork in my younger years before moving into coaching with Carrigaline.

“From there, I went on to become the manager for the Irish ladies U-20s team, under coach Francis O’Sullivan. It was a two-year programme culminating in the European Championships in Portugal.”

Debbie Keane has had to move her classes online due to Covid.
Debbie Keane has had to move her classes online due to Covid.

But growing up in the shadow of Collins Barracks, and watching soldiers running up and down the hill, she declared ‘that’s for me’.

“The attraction to the Army was 110% to do with the sport and fitness regime. All I ever wanted to do was specialise in sport. I had no interest in running around with guns.”

So on April 20, 1994, Debbie joined the army, a very eager 19-year-old recruit. There had been a moratorium on recruitment for the previous seven years so there were literally thousands of applicants that year. She was one of only eight women recruited, out of a total troop of 40, to the Southern Brigade.

Debbie Keane taking part in a military parade, during her time in the army.
Debbie Keane taking part in a military parade, during her time in the army.

The women trained with their male counterparts in Collins Barracks, the first mixed platoon of male/female combat soldiers.

“The training regime was gruelling,” says Debbie. 

“Every day was so tough. We survived on three to four hours sleep, room-inspections every hour on the hour, and 20km combat walks were a regular occurrence.”

This long combat hike had to be completed within a certain time frame while in full battle gear, boots, helmets, rifle, and carrying a 50kg back-pack.

At 5 foot 4 inches, and weighing slightly over 50kg, she had to be careful never to stand upright as the weight of the back-pack would cause her to topple backwards, unable to right herself.

“I would be left lying on the ground, like a ladybird!” she adds with a giggle.

Debbie Keane adored life in the army.
Debbie Keane adored life in the army.

Training lasted for six months and Keane was hooked.

“I adored every second of it!”

A Military Personal Training Instructor is one of the hardest courses to pass in the army and this was her ultimate goal.

“Every year I applied for the course and every year they turned down my application”, she recalls. 

“I was too junior. I had to be promoted first.”

She trained constantly and was very fit.

“I felt you’d have to be operating at your absolute maximum to succeed.”

The standard of qualification was excellent as the course had the best instructors in the country but was, and still is, notoriously difficult to pass.

“I think I wore them down with my over-zealous desire to do it that they eventually relented, let me do the test and I qualified to do the course!”

But the promotion course she had to do to actually qualify for the MPTI course pushed Debbie to her limits.

“The course nearly broke me. Literally!” she declares.

Debbie Keane at a military orienteering championships in Portugal.
Debbie Keane at a military orienteering championships in Portugal.

Her platoon were in the Vee, a big lake situated at the foot of the Knockmealdown mountains in Tipperary. It was the middle of January and they had been engaged in back-breaking, non-stop tactical training for the previous week and a half. Running up and down mountains, sleeping outdoors, digging trenches, hiding in the woods, and they were completely spent.

“There were only 14 of us, out of 40, still standing at that stage.” she adds.

Debbie had lost a stone (14 lbs) in this time so had no body fat to insulate her. In addition, the constant abrasion from her boots, which she never took off, resulted in the loss of all of her toe nails.

The lake crossing is an arduous challenge at the best of times, coming as it does directly after a mountain descent, but this was the middle of January, in a lake with no recorded depth, and freezing water temperature. Their challenge was to cross in teams of four, using their back packs as a make-shift raft.

“We had to take off all our clothes and dress in our wet gear,” Keane explains.

“Then seal our dry warm clothing in the backpack as we would need to wear them on the other side of the river.

“As a qualified swimming and life-saving instructor, I didn’t really fear anything about the crossing”, she adds. But, three quarters of the way across, she started sinking.

Her ambition was to become a Personal Trainer in the army, a goal she achieved.
Her ambition was to become a Personal Trainer in the army, a goal she achieved.

“I couldn’t figure out why until I suddenly registered that my arms had started to float away, and I couldn’t control them. It dawned on me, then, it was because I had lost all feeling in them. My legs too. I was sinking fast. 

"I shouted for help and the rescue boat was there in seconds. If I had sunk any further, the black lake would have swallowed me up.”

Debbie suffered severe hyperthermia, and had to be resuscitated en route to the hospital. She woke up in the hospital with no idea where she was or how she had got there.

“I was confused also by the dead weight on my chest” she adds.

“When I looked down, I realised it was my arm that was lying across my chest, but it was still numb.”

Despite the fact that she had burnt all the nerve endings in her fingers, the doggedly determined and competitive Debbie finished the course as soon as she was discharged from hospital. She was the only woman in her platoon to do that tactical river crossing.

Debbie was overjoyed when she realised her childhood dream of qualifying as a Military Physical Training Instructor.

She went back to Cork to the army gym and became the fitness tester for the Southern Brigade.

She ran circuit classes with the soldiers to build up upper body strength, and oversaw the long combat walks.

“I was responsible for the overall logistics of these arduous 20km hikes,” Debbie explains.

Debbie Keane in the Lebanon.
Debbie Keane in the Lebanon.

As part of her contract, she spent six months in the Lebanon in a war-torn mountainous region and was responsible for communications and shooting reps (monitoring the rounds that were fired and by whom). It was a dangerous but also very interesting post as she encountered soldiers from so many different countries and cultures.

After 10 years, she left the army.

“I had given it everything and got so much out of it too,” she says.

“But, I wanted to be there for my kids”.

Debbie Keane and family.
Debbie Keane and family.

She had moved to Innishannon, a new area and had no family support.

She began to do personal training sessions in people’s houses.

“One day, my sister told me about a Zumba course in Dublin called ‘From the Army to the Dance Floor’.” 

Keane outlines. “This was before Zumba became a fitness craze!” With her encouragement, Debbie did the course and started her first classes in Innishannon that year.

“Prior to then, I had no aspirations to set up classes. But I got bitten by the bug and could see how important fitness was to my clients. 

"As most of my clients were women of a certain age, I felt that pilates would be a very important course also.” 

So, true to form, every weekend for nine months, Debbie travelled up to Limerick to train as a Pilates and Postural Corrections Specialist. 

“My hubby and kids would join me on the Saturday evening”, she adds “and that’s how we spent the weekends. Without that support, I wouldn’t be here today.” 

Debbie Keane at her studio.
Debbie Keane at her studio.

Pre-Covid, Debbie had a thriving business of Zumba, Toning Weights, H.I.I.T, pilloxing, and pilates classes in Innishannon, Kinsale and Carrigaline. But Covid 19 Lockdown brought her business to a sudden standstill.

“For the first time in my life, I was unemployed”, she says. 

“I decided to run a few free classes for all my clients to keep them motivated and to give us all a sense of solidarity. We had a great time. It wasn’t planned and I think that was the beauty of it. It evolved organically. I ran them for six weeks.” 

Then some of her clients came together and said it wasn’t fair that Debbie wasn’t being paid. They reached out to those doing the classes and recommended a class fee. 

Debbie Keane, believes working out right now is so important for everyone.
Debbie Keane, believes working out right now is so important for everyone.

“And that was it. My online business was born” declares Keane.

“I’m not a tech person at all” she admits “so, initially, I thought I would have a heart attack with the stress of it all.

Debbie believes that nothing will ever replace the social interaction of in- person classes but for now this is the safest option for her clients.

“Fitness is my life. At the moment, with people’s mental well-being the top of the agenda, it has never been more important to work out.” 

Classes with Debbie can be booked on Instagram @keane-on-fitness or Facebook Fitness with Debs.


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