“It’s when I feel most like me” – the woman who swims through ice
Since she quit the iconic BBC Breakfast red sofa in September 2021, Louise Minchin has swum in the shark-infested waters of Alcatraz, learned to free-dive under ice in Finland and hiked up Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales.
She has also completed an agonising nine-hour Half Ironman triathlon, played women’s rugby in a violent thunderstorm, embarked on a two-day trek across Dartmoor and cycled 800 miles across Argentina, where at one point she genuinely feared for her life. Superwoman or what?
And if all of that wasn’t enough – and it clearly wasn’t for the 54-year-old presenter who graced our early morning screens for 20 years – she also embarked on another 11 jaw-dropping adventures.
They were all in the company of trailblazing women whose endeavours, motivation, resilience, and bravery she wanted to celebrate in her new book Fearless: Adventures with Extraordinary Women.
“One minute I would be training to go freediving under the ice in Finland in the dark with Cath Pendleton, and then I’d be squirming through narrow tunnels wild-caving in the Mendip Hills in Somerset,” she says when we meet in London to talk about her adventures. “It was a roller-coaster of doing lots of things for the first time.”
For the past three weeks she had been focused on yet another challenge: her first London marathon with her 21-year-old daughter Mia, which they successfully completed just days after we met.
The preparation was clearly taking its toll. “I’m so tired but training together has been one of the most brilliant and special times,” says Louise, also a mum to daughter Scarlett, 18.
In comparison to the 17 challenges she completed for her book, a 26-mile marathon sounds almost tame. Louise recalls the exact moment she decided it was time to get up off the sofa and change her life.
“I’d been up at 3.40am and was sitting in the make-up chair at the BBC studios in Salford balancing a cup of tea with my congealed porridge and reading through my scripts,” she says.
“It was a typical day. A government minister to interview, a story about wind farms, an Eighties pop star and finally a story of endeavour and hope and courage. And it was about a man who was climbing a mountain in bare feet.
“Now, I had nothing against him, but why was it always men doing these incredible things that we talked to? Where were the women? And in that moment I thought, right, I’ve had enough! I could sit here and fight the battle to feature the world’s inspirational women on the show in the way I’ve fought so many times for equality of women on TV.
“But, I thought, this one I’m not going to fight. I’m just going to do these amazing things with them – and write a book about it.”
It was this epiphany that led her a few months later to quit BBC Breakfast – something she’d been thinking about for years, partly because of the extreme hours.
“I hate mornings!”
“I hate mornings! In a weird way that’s why I was good at them because it was so unnatural that the alarm went off at 3.40am. It was like fight or flight. So I was very on it, and wide awake and prepared.
“But now it’s at 9.15am, which is when BBC Breakfast ends. That’s when I like to wake.”
During her time on the show Louise fought – and eventually won – what she describes as a “bruising and immensely long-winded” fight to be paid the same amount as her male co-presenters.
“For me what was important was the principle,” she says. “How can it be that two people who sit next to each other and do the same job are not paid a similar amount of money? It was important for me to send out a clear message that in the 21st century it is not acceptable.
“So many of us, particularly presenters, were being paid less than our male counterparts.”
Louise also won a battle for the female co-host on Breakfast to lead the programme on alternate days, arguing it was ‘age-old, systemic discrimination’ to have the female presenter always playing ‘second fiddle’ to the male.
The eldest of three, Louise was born in Hong Kong, her father serving as a Major in the Irish Guards regiment. After attending school in Ascot, Berkshire, she went on to earn a degree in Spanish at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, which is clearly where she found her rebel spirit.
“I was a terrible student – so naughty,” she recalls. “I didn’t turn up for lectures and had a great time drinking lots and being really irresponsible. I must have been rebelling against everything. I’d have been appalled if my daughters [both of whom are still at university] approached their studies like that.”
At our photoshoot, it’s obvious that Louise still has a touch of rebel in her as she waves her left leg at the photographer. “I want to show off my tattoo,” she says, displaying the delicate black heart above her ankle.
“My first ever one at the age of 54. I’ve always wanted one. My daughters and I got identical tattoos on New Year’s Eve in Sri Lanka – except theirs are red!”
Louise and her financial director husband David live with their daughters in a rambling Georgian house in a Cheshire village, with two adopted Shetland ponies, Muffin and Holly, in the field next door, a rabbit called Bumble and two Labradors, Waffle and Ruby.
But family life wasn’t always quite as idyllic because in the summer of 2020 Louise discovered she had a stalker.
Violent threats were being posted on social media, not just to her, but to Mia, too, who at that time was just 18. Last year, encouraged by her daughter, Louise presented the ITV documentary The Truth About Stalking, in which she met other survivors.
In Louise’s case, her stalker was finally tracked down in March 2021 and arrested. He was later jailed for two years and eight months.
“I’m really glad I did the documentary but I don’t want to talk about it any more,” says Louise. “What I will say is that you don’t need to be in the public eye for it to happen. The key thing is to know where and how to get help, and there are organisations out there, lots of charities that deal with it.”
Indeed, Mia ran the London Marathon for one of those charities, Paladin – National Stalking Advocacy Service.
Louise has described herself as a ‘lioness’ when it comes to protecting her family. “All mums are very protective,” she says. “I am not really concerned about myself, but about my daughters.
“Being stalked was really traumatic and it’s something I will never forget. But in life you have to try to move on. I tend to put things in boxes and close them.” And this one is firmly closed.
When she was Mia’s age, Louise won a university scholarship to go to Argentina for a year where she perfected her Spanish, and on returning back home she studied journalism at the London College of Communication.
She still considers Argentina to be her ‘happy place’ so was thrilled to return there for one of her most arduous challenges yet: to cycle 800 miles across the country with 61-year-old British grandmother-of-four Mimi Anderson who, in the world of endurance running, is a legend.
“We were biking well over 100 miles a day in very high temperatures and I’d just had Covid,” Louise recalls. “We were on a dual carriageway with that simmering heat making mirages on the Tarmac and I was slightly hallucinating. Lorries were coming up behind us at about 70mph.
“Plus, we had lost the safe vehicle that was always behind us making sure vehicles took a wider birth. I thought I was going to be killed by a lorry. You wouldn’t cycle on a dual carriageway in the UK!”
Scared for her life, Louise shouted out to Mimi that she had to stop. She becomes emotional as she describes how Mimi helped calm her while they waited for the safety vehicle to catch up.
“I kept thinking if my husband had known I’d been cycling on a motorway with lorries coming past me at that speed he would be absolutely horrified.”
Married for 25 years this month, the story of how she met David is like something out of a Hollywood romcom.
From the ages of 12 to 14, Louise would holiday with her family on a beach in North Cornwall. “I was the oldest child so was always having to play with younger siblings,” she says.
“And there was this group of families who looked like they were having such fun. I would look at them really enviously. There was this one boy who was so good looking, wore a Kinks T-shirt and used to play guitar. I had such a crush on him.”
Fast forward to St Andrews, where Louise met her close friend Ali Minchin (‘the clue is in the name’, says Louise) who by coincidence had holidayed on the same Cornwall beach.
It was then that Louise had a lightbulb moment. “I asked her if she had a brother who used to wear a Kinks T-shirt, and she said how would I even know that?
“After that I met David a few times at Ali’s parties. When I was about 27, I recall very clearly bouncing up to him and going: ‘Ha ha, I used to be in love with you when I was 14’. And he just said: ‘When you chuck your boyfriend, give me a call.’ A few months later I did and we were married soon after that.’
It’s clear she is still madly in love with him. “He is brilliant at supporting me,” she smiles. “At the London Marathon, he will make sure he finds me at several points along the route.
“Whenever I am running or doing an extreme triathlon, I’m always running back to him. Because he is home, he is my rock and my safety net.”
So, is there a part of her that still relives the childish crush she had on him? “It’s pathetic, but I hide behind doors to make him jump,” she laughs. “There has been 25 years of doing it. And I’ll wait a long time. I’m like the 12-year-old I was when we met – and still chasing him!”
The couple train together, or rather, she says, “I drag him along to a personal trainer with me”. But she calls sport her solace. “It’s my ‘me’ time,” she says.
“When I was at my most successful as a triathlete, I was probably having my hardest time at the BBC going through my equal pay battle. And sport really helped me through a difficult time.”
She’s hoping to be back on the red sofa soon to talk about her book. “What have I learned about myself from doing all this?” she asks. “That I’m nuts! This is a really exciting time for me. I’m already planning another book. And…,” she stops to show me a text.
“So, literally this morning I got a message from a friend who has asked me to do one of the most gruelling races in the world. I said, ‘Right now I never want to run again, but ask me after the marathon’.
“I’m very susceptible to ambitious ideas. I am trying to say no, but I already know what the answer is going to be.”
Written by Pam Francis