What do you get when you cross a black belt martial artist with a professional stuntwoman, a pilot, World Champion kickboxer, mother and nutritionist? Well, you only get one woman – Cheryl Wheeler Duncan. This 51-year-old mother of two certainly puts the “sporty” in sporty woman, and she was gracious enough to take the time to answer a few exclusive interview questions for GirlsGoneSporty. While we may not all be able to stunt double for Cameron Diaz, Rene Russo or Bridget Fonda, there’s nothing stopping us from learning a thing or two from the incredible woman who does. Read on and be inspired!
GirlsGoneSporty (GGS): The tagline for GirlsGoneSporty is “Live the sporty life!” As a stuntwoman, kickboxing champion and pilot, you’ve certainly done that. What inspired you to grab life by the horns and pursue so much action and adventure?
Cheryl Wheeler Duncan (CWD): I think growing up with 5 brothers and no sisters set the stage for a very athletic and competitive childhood on all levels. I grew up on the Gulf Coast swimming, sailing, surfing and riding horses. I played basketball and ran track and field in school. I especially loved high jump! My brothers cut me no slack growing up and I had to keep up with them or get lost in the shuffle of a testosterone-filled pack of boys! Being the only girl, it was natural for me to want to emulate my brothers and be like them. They would constantly tell me, “You can’t do what we do, you’re a girl!” So, I spent my entire life proving them wrong.
GGS: Being a professional stuntwoman clearly requires a high level of fitness. What’s your normal workout schedule look like? What’s your favorite activity to help you stay in shape?
CWD: I work out regularly and enjoy training outside when the weather is nice, which is almost every day in Austin! I am a big believer in stretching and will start and end my workout with stretches and yoga-type moves. Staying limber and supple gives me the appearance of being younger than I am. Have you ever noticed how older people become stiff and their gait is short and choppy instead of fluid? You can tell most people’s age from behind just by watching them walk. People that stretch and stay limber defy this standard and take on the aura of a much younger person. I am also a fan of cardio training and constantly work on my endurance so that I can work all day on movie sets performing strenuous fight scenes and physical stunts. If I don’t have endurance and flexibility, I am doing my actress and the movie a disservice.
Most of the time my exercise includes running outside with my two dogs, Noni and Goji. I constantly change up my workout by doing wind sprints and running hills. After my run, I will do isometric training moves like lunges, frog hops, push-ups and so forth. I am always trying to change up my workout to challenge my muscles and lungs. I try and go to the gym for strength training at least 2 times per week. No actress wants a soft, out of shape stuntwoman doubling them, and sometimes I walk a fine line between trying to stay lean and in shape, but still soft and feminine.
GGS: What’s the craziest and/or most difficult stunt you’ve ever performed?
CWD: I’ve done plenty of crazy stunts over my 22 year career. A few come to mind: a 50 foot jump off of an exploding building in tandem with another stunt man (Warlock), a last second jump off of a 60 foot high train trestle with another stuntman as a train crashes into a police car and explodes behind us (Night Fighters), and quite recently, a 50 foot car jump at night into Decker Lake on a new TV series shot here in Austin called “The Lying Game.” After I hit the water on this job I sunk to the bottom of the lake on a dive tank regulator and stayed submerged for 5 to 7 minutes. This stunt, at age 51, was one of the most challenging and dangerous of my career. Many things could have gone wrong and the stunt coordinator, Jeff Schwan and I, along with the special effects department, spent several days prepping the car and doing everything we could to ensure my safety.
GGS: You sustained serious injuries during an accident on a movie set – can you tell me a little about the accident and how you recovered? What helped you stay positive and motivated during that tough time?
CWD: It was a long time ago! In June of 1989 I was working on “Back to the Future Part II.” We were shooting a flying sequence involving futuristic hoverboards and wirework . I was picked at the hips on wires attached to a flying harness. The grand finale of the sequence involved four stunt hoverboard riders spinning out of control into and through a giant courthouse window on the Universal Studios lot. There were giant columns on either side of the courthouse window. We were all attached to the same overhead arbor and suspended 20 feet in the air. My placement on the wires was on the far left with another stuntman to the right of me and another stuntman to the right of him. One stuntman was below the three of us, flying lower on the wires. We had a cherry picker that stretched us back from the window about 70 feet. When the director yelled “action”, the cherry picker released us and we all hurtled towards the window.
In a “perfect world” we would have passed between the two giant pillars on either side of the courthouse window and crashed through the window itself, whereupon the special effects man in charge would have released us off of our cables and we would have dropped 20 feet to crash pads below us. In a “not so perfect” world (i.e., what really happened), the entire arbor swung left and I was the unfortunate one positioned to run smack into the pillar, without any control over my direction or velocity.
After I smashed into the pillar, the special effects guy saw the other stuntpeople crashing through the window as planned, and hit the release button as soon as the window broke. He did not realize or see that I had hit the pillar and was still dangling next to it 20 feet in the air. When he hit the release button I dropped like a ton of bricks to the concrete floor. As I realized what he had done, my whole life flashed before me. I thought I was going to die. And technically, I did. The medics on set revived me. I shattered the left side of my face and jaw, and badly broke my right arm and wrist. I had a severe concussion and remember very little of the 2 weeks following the accident.
I was actually very fortunate not to have been hurt worse, but as it was, I suffered through five long and painful reconstructive surgeries over three years.
It was hard at first to stay positive and motivated after my injury. In my business, I defined myself by my looks and the great condition of my body. Landing stunt jobs involved being in great shape and looking as much like the beautiful actress you were doubling as possible. After my accident, it was hard for me to look in the mirror. The left side of my face was crushed inward and I was a bloody, bruised mess.
Looking back though, and we all know this, any time any of us suffer tragedy, pain or serious health issues, it is ultimately an opportunity for us to grow and evolve and learn from our pain and become a better person. This accident forced me to look inward and examine my life on many levels. I was in a business built on superficiality. People (especially women) who make their living in front of the camera, whether actresses or stuntwomen, tend to live more externally and base much of their success on their looks and outward physical talent. During my successive surgeries, having my jaw wired shut for 30 days, and continuous pain, I turned inward and starting searching for meaning in all the hardship. It reawakened my spirituality and compassion on a level that is hard to put in to words. Ultimately I feel the accident was a blessing in disguise and the experience has made me a much better person overall.
GGS: You’re the mother of two daughters – do they want to pursue careers similar to yours? Would you let them? If so, what words of advice or wisdom would you give them?
CWD: With children, you get what you get, and my two daughters are very different from me. I grew up with five brothers and constantly challenged myself to be better than the boys. This gave me a certain edge and attitude that could only develop in a sibling and family situation such as mine. My daughters are very strong willed and competitive, but are also “girly girls” and not so into the “tomboy” way of living.
If either of my daughters wanted to pursue stunt work someday, I would not discourage them, but it is a long and hard road. I would encourage them to follow their dreams, and if being a stuntwoman was one of them, then they better get to work on all things athletic, so that they can be at the top of their game as young adults. I would encourage them to enroll in gymnastics and martial arts, and to develop their bodies to be the best they can be. Of course, I would help, coach and direct them as much as I could!
GGS: In addition to your other roles, you’re also a nutritionist. What are some of the biggest problems you see with the current American diet?
CWD: I became a nutritionist after my terrible stunt accident in 1989. It was one of the blessings that came out of the tragedy and pain. My nutritionist, Dr. Lindsey Duncan ND, changed my health for the better on a massive scale. The positive changes I felt through cleansing and detoxification, balancing and rebuilding my cells and tissues, and flushing out my organs was life-changing and career changing!
I don’t have much good to say about the current way average Americans eat. The American diet is largely dead and devoid of all nutrients. People have traded live nutrient-filled foods for dead and devitalized, overly processed foods full of fat and sugar. We have traded living close to the earth for convenience and fast foods, and our bodies have suffered the consequences. Nutritional deficiencies are a huge part of the overall equation when dealing with depression, arthritis, digestive disorders,
obesity, circulatory issues, heart problems, and even degenerative diseases such as cancer. We must eat more live, alkaline, fresh foods to build our bodies and maintain optimal health.
GGS: What suggestions do you have for women who want to fuel their body in a way that will adequately support an active lifestyle?
CWD: Look into cleansing and detoxification first. There are great supplement programs in health food stores such as Whole Foods (my favorite is Genesis Today’s 4Total Cleanse) that make it easy to stimulate our body to cleanse and detoxify, and “clean house,” so to speak! I stress this as a nutritionist because if your digestive and eliminative system is not working properly, then your foundation is weak. Absorption and assimilation of the food we put in our body is key to good health. When digestion and elimination are working properly, nutrients are absorbed better and our bodies feel light and energetic.
Most women, including myself are deficient in minerals. If you are of menstruating age, you lose a lot of minerals during your monthly periods, especially if you experience heavy flow. If you’re active and athletic on top of this, then you are constantly sweating out additional minerals and electrolytes. Given that our food supply is also so deficient in minerals, ultimately the stage is set for a malnourished, mineral deficient body that will not function optimally.
I recommend a healthy, green diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables. I also consume superfruit liquid supplements like Genesis Today’s Acai 100, Mangosteen100 and Goji100, as well as green superfood supplements such as GenEssential Greens that are packed with vitamins, minerals and whole food nutrients. I consume high-in-protein and “good for you” fats such as almonds, sesame seeds, chia seeds and avocados.
GGS: Nutritional supplements are a hot topic in exercise science and nutrition. In your opinion, how or when should women add supplements to their diet?
CWD: Like religion and politics, everyone has their own opinion when it comes to nutritional supplementation! However, there is no escaping the documented facts that our basic food supply is lacking in vitamins and minerals, and we are nutritionally deficient. Why not stack the odds in your favor by supplementing your diet with nutrients that support your unique needs along the way? For example, if you are a competitive athlete and marathon runner, take extra vitamins and minerals, preferably in liquid form for ultimate absorption. Drink natural coconut water, a “healthy” electrolyte replacement drink instead of bad for you Gatorade-type drinks.
I believe whole-heartedly that my personal supplement program, along with a good (but not perfect) diet, keeps me feeling the best that I can.
GGS: What are your current “sporty” goals? Are there any active adventures that you haven’t tried, but would like to?
CWD: I’ve ALWAYS wanted to hang-glide! I got my private pilot’s license 3 years ago and the concept of unmotorized flight is absolutely fascinating and something I’ve always wanted to experience! I would
love to try it in tandem with a very experienced flight instructor at the helm. I’ve also always wanted to sky-dive… another thrill sport that I have yet to try!
I would also love to get involved in the “ride and tie” endurance races with horses and riders… You ride for so many miles, then you run on foot! I’ve always owned and ridden horses and when I used to train for professional kickboxing matches years ago and would run long distances for endurance, I would often halter my horse and go jogging with him for miles. He would run next to me or behind me just like a big dog! This way, I would get my workout in, and give him a workout at the same time. Observers thought I was crazy!
GGS: What items do you stock in your gym bag?
CWD: My gym bag contains leather workout gloves with wrist wraps attached. If you asked me what the weakest part of my entire body is, I would absolutely say my wrists. I have thin wrists to begin with, and to top it off my right wrist was shattered in the “Back To The Future” stunt accident, so it’s particularly weak! Also a big bottle of alkaline water and my iPhone earbuds so that I can work out to my favorite music.
GGS: What is your favorite brand of fitness apparel?
CWD: Traditionz T-shirts (www.traditionz.us) because they are amazingly soft, stretchy and comfortable, and the t-shirt material is thin, but still wicks sweat away from your body. I also LOVE the graphic designs on the shirts. They are martial arts oriented but loved by non-martial artists too. It is a new brand, but growing like crazy.
I also love Nike shoes. They have always been my shoe of choice. The latest versions are so light and airy that you feel like you are barefooted with support!
GGS: When you’re taking a day off, how do you spend your down time?
CWD: Hands down, FLYING! Up in the air and behind the controls of an airplane… Nothing else matters but me and my airplane, the air traffic controller, the blue sky above me and the amazing sights below me. There is something very Zen about flying. I feel closer to God up in the sky, and very removed from my every day troubles and worries - no kids, no husband, no appointments, no work - total concentrated focus on the task at hand!
GGS: Where’s the coolest place you’ve flown a plane?
CWD: The island of Tofino in British Columbia. My husband and I traveled there and rented a seaplane (along with a local pilot). Technically I was co-piloting the seaplane, but it was a blast nevertheless! We saw whales, sea lions, oyster farms, salmon farms, sea caves, glaciers, and even landed on magical mountain lakes surrounded by snow and ice. We navigated and flew over some of the wildest and most beautiful country that I have ever seen. I can’t wait to go back again.
Now that I’m completely jealous and plan to immediately sign up for kickboxing, flying, hang gliding and trapeze classes, I want to thank Cheryl Wheeler Duncan for her time and graciousness. To learn more about Cheryl’s career and business, read on at http://www.cherylwheelerduncan.com/.