Feature Athlete 9: Katie McDonnell

Katie McDonnell is one of the most prominent female athletes in parkour/freerunning. With a distinctive style and infectiously positive personality she has been working as a professional freerunner for nine years, appearing on UK Ninja Warrior, in numerous commercials, and several films. Most notably Katie stunt doubled for Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

Where did you first come across Parkour?

I went along to an open gym session in Southampton and there were some guys there doing parkour. I learned a few things from them and became great friends with them. I started going along to their outdoor training sessions and things developed from there.

Photo credit: Claudiu Voicu

What inspired you to start training?

I wasn’t inspired as such, the training I was doing with the guys was just really fun. I didn’t have a spiritual reason for starting to train parkour like some people do, it was just a really fun thing to do.

I’ve seen some clips in the past on your social media of training you filmed in your earlier days of doing parkour, where you mostly seem to be drilling the basics repeatedly. Is that something you still try and do regularly in your training?

I definitely still spend a lot of time drilling the basics, the other day I went out and just spent time doing small kong pres and jumps. I think you can progress without practising the basics but the progress isn’t going to be as strong.

Quite a few of those early clips seem to be of you, training alone. What would you say are the benefits that you personally experience from solo training?

When you train alone you’re not worried about what people think. As I’ve become more well known in the community I’ve found it more difficult to train in larger groups of people because there often seems to be an expectation there. I end up doing things I’m comfortable with. When I’m training alone I find it easier to try things I’m not so good at and to push myself.

You have quite a few videos of you training with Pamela Forster. You two seem to have a great rapport and it seems like those training sessions that you have together are really productive. What different benefits would you say you get from training with other people?

Some people, like Pam, definitely bring out my more positives sides when I’m training. We’re not afraid of failing in front of each other and we help each other.

Do you find it difficult to achieve productive training at bigger meetups?

It’s been an up and down thing as to how I feel about training in big events. I used to find that I could push myself but lately, that’s not been the case. Sometimes someone will be doing an interesting challenge and that can be good for training.

How often do you usually manage to train, including conditioning and general movement training?

My training schedule varies a lot, it’s usually different from week to week. When I’m working on a film I maybe get some gym training in three times a week and work on general fitness twice a week, but I don’t push myself because I can’t risk injury. I might also just be really busy and not have time to train at all while working on a film. When I’m not working on a film I might get training in five to six times a week and do some general fitness on top of that.

Do you practice any forms of movement other than parkour?

I do a bit of tricking, although that ties into freerunning. I do a little bit of bouldering when I have the time and I do some weapons work to improve my overall stunt performance skills.

Would you say that your mentality and approach to training has changed much from when you started?

Yeah, my mentality is pretty different now. I can’t afford to be reckless any more. If I get injured I can’t work. I have to be a lot more cautious in my training. My progression is slower, but it’s also better quality.

Have you experienced many times where the motivation to train has been difficult to find? If so, was there a reason.

Definitely. There are so many reasons for struggling with motivation, it just depends on what mood I’m in. If I’m feeling down then I don’t feel like training. If I’m coming back from injury and I’ve lost strength and ability that can be difficult. During full time film work the training sessions I get in are often short and it can be difficult to progress.

You worked as a stunt double for Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker. You’ve worked on seven other films. What have been your favourite projects to be a part of?

Oh, Star Wars was definitely my favourite thing that I’ve ever worked on. Kind of hard to beat that really.

Do you have to collaborate closely with the actors on set or are your parts mostly directed separately?

You work really closely with the actors. For a lot of stunts there will be an actor friendly version so they can perform a proportion of the stunt themselves. So you have a lot of one to one time with the actors walking them through those stunts and helping them be able to perform as much of it themselves as possible. What you end up seeing onscreen is often an amalgamation of the actor and the stunt double performing a stunt.

Were you a Star Wars fan before working on the film?

I actually wasn’t a Star Wars fan before, but my sister is a massive Star Wars fan and pretty much told me that I had to take the job or she would never forgive me!

What was it like to be a part of such a well established and much-loved universe?

In terms of the crew, it didn’t feel too different working on Star Wars than other movies, I’ve been on sets before where there are hundreds of people everywhere, but it seems like they build a lot more of the stuff for real in Star Wars. The sets are incredible, sometimes you really feel like you’re on another planet! They also build the creatures “for real” so they are really there on set with you, rather than just being added in post-production. That’s the kind of thing that made working on Star Wars really special.

I wanted to ask specifically about the scene where Rey flips over Kylo Rens ship as it’s speeding towards her through the desert. How was that shot achieved?

Obviously I didn’t flip over an actual speeding spaceship! I had a single wire assist that helped me get the height I needed, so I just had to concentrate on the flip and swinging the lightsaber in the right direction. The ship was added in with CGI.

How did you initially get into doing film work?

I started out doing commercials and I do still do commercials. Assassins Creed was the first film I worked on. They needed a female parkour athlete because there were a lot of specific parkour movements required, like cat 180s and a roof gap at height and I got put forward for it.

How are you managing in lockdown? Do you have have an indoor training routine you’re following and do you make use of our one designated daily outing for exercise in the UK?

I am currently injured and waiting for surgery on my ankle, which has been postponed because all non-essential surgery has been postponed. Most of my current training is yoga, handstands, slow short jogs, and very light parkour work. I hadn’t done any yoga before lockdown started and now I do it every day.

Thanks to Katie for lending her time for this interview. You can check out her website for more information on what kind of work she does and her past achievements.


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