Commando Steve talks about true courage ahead of the 2019 Albury-Wodonga Winter Solstice

GENTLY DOES IT: Fitness guru and former military commander Steve Willis is one of the keynote speakers at the Albury-Wodonga Winter Solstice this Friday. The RU OK ambassador says it is a privilege to support mental health initiatives. Picture: FAIRFAX
GENTLY DOES IT: Fitness guru and former military commander Steve Willis is one of the keynote speakers at the Albury-Wodonga Winter Solstice this Friday. The RU OK ambassador says it is a privilege to support mental health initiatives. Picture: FAIRFAX

Steve Willis knows there is strength in surrender.

That philosophy may seem vastly at odds with the tough, no-nonsense trainer Australia came to know on the popular and long-running reality television show Biggest Loser.

It's even more at odds with the ethos of the military in which he served for more than 10 years, working his way up to a counter terrorism team commander in The Australian Special Forces.

And yet surrender is a word 'Commando Steve', as he is most famously known, now wholeheartedly embraces.

Indeed there is a gentleness to this 188cm towering specimen of finely tuned muscle that is, well, perhaps a little surprising.

A lot of people try to initiate change in their lives ... but it's from the wrong place. It's from a place of shame or guilt.

Commando Steve

The man who is happy to be called Steve - just not 'The Commando' or 'Commando' as it is too "dehumanising" - launches almost immediately into a spiritual discussion as we begin our interview ahead of his appearance at the Albury-Wodonga Winter Solstice on Friday, June 21.

He's nursing an injured right Achilles, suffered during intensive training for close friend and rugby superstar Mat Rogers' upcoming series MaxingOut.

Steve is on the Gold Coast filming for the documentary that follows three celebrities on a journey to their first ever Iron Distance Triathlon.

Maxing Out parallels the challenges of training for the biggest long distance triathlon in the world with the struggles and joy of raising a child with autism.

The project will also raise awareness and funds for the 4ASDKids charity which provides early intervention programs for kids impacted by autism, including Rogers' 13-year-old son Max.

Steve is philosophical about an injury that, while minor, will mean a critical seven days of no training.

"When I was younger, this type of setback would have led to tension and upset," the 42-year-old admits.

"These days I don't let something like this become a runaway horse.

"I observe how I am feeling and centre myself; I'm gentle with myself like you would be with a distressed child. It gives you the space to be more pragmatic and rational about the choices you make."

It's a heavy-hitting introduction to one of the country's most recognised fitness celebrities.

Yet there is much more the spiritual than the Spartacus to our conversation.

"Yes, they call me Scuba Steve because I go deep," Steve laughs.

"My friends will say, 'Oh, Steve's got his diving gear on again'."

As self-deprecating as he is, it's clear there is a man of substance that goes deeper than the physical.

Yet as a young boy, it was in the physical that Steve found his mental solace. The oldest of four boys growing up in Queensland, he was bullied at primary school and beyond.

In Year 7 he became the "walking, talking punching bag" of a much bigger kid.

"I didn't really feel like I fitted in," Steve recalls. "I was uncomfortable in social settings, I was introverted.

"At that age you don't know yourself, it's hard to articulate how you feel."

And so he ran.

"Exercise became my go-to to deal with things - it helped settle and ground me," he says.

BRAVE SOLDIERS: Commando Steve has praised the pioneering work of the Border's winter solstice founders Annette and Stuart Baker - "It's hard to lead from the front ... there is always fear of the unknown".

BRAVE SOLDIERS: Commando Steve has praised the pioneering work of the Border's winter solstice founders Annette and Stuart Baker - "It's hard to lead from the front ... there is always fear of the unknown".

The other force that helped ground this "curious cat" was the army, giving Steve the discipline and structure he craved.

And while he initially signed up with the intention of learning a trade - he wanted to be a builder - Steve was to find his strength lay in the infantry and special forces.

"I had a wonderful time in the military," he says. "It was tough but it provided the framework upon which I stand now."

Principles that include contribution and service, trust and integrity.

"We pay a lot of lip service to these words - they are simple but hard to live by," he says.

"These are values we practised daily; we were a tight-knit group and the camaraderie is what I miss most about the military."

Steve acknowledges with deep sadness the many comrades lost to suicide.

"You spend years in there building an identity, you are attached to a certain way of being and then you leave and who are you?" he says.

"The older we get, we become so attached to a way of being that it is hard to let it go - it's scary.

"Sometimes we would rather suffer the consequences of what we know than embrace something new."

That fear was to manifest itself when Steve moved back into civilian life and in front of the cameras for the Biggest Loser in 2007.

"It freaked me out more than anything else I have done," he admits.

"In the military you do your job and keep quiet - in the media you need the gift of the gab and to be able to articulate your expectations."

In helping others to achieve their weight loss goals, Commando Steve was to learn a lot about himself:

"A lot of people try to initiate change in their lives but it's from the wrong place. It's from a place of shame or guilt; if they don't achieve that change they feel worse."

After his own hard-won success in the World Crossfit Games, Steve started to appreciate his compulsion to exercise didn't always come from a positive place.

"I was spent - even the thought of exercise made me feel nauseous," he admits. "I had to think about why I would continue.

"I went back to the place in my childhood and realised I could train on my own; I didn't need validation from others - doing what I was passionate about was enough."

Which brings us to today.

Steve, who borrows from Budha, Eckhart Tolle and Thich Nhat Hanh to elucidate his point, says as humans we spend too much energy putting on a mask to show others we are OK.

"There is a lot of energy spent to keep at bay the unrest going on behind the mask," he says.

"We need to surrender to our vulnerabilities - to talk about the present moment and accept what is."

Steve mentions the "no mud, no lotus" theory - Nhat Hanh's belief that the secret to happiness is to acknowledge and transform suffering, not to run away from it.

As a community we need to "lean on one another" more, he says.

"How do we become a more, centred calm human being?

"We need to become a more compassionate species; a species of service and I believe we do have the intelligence now to understand that."

It starts with small steps, according to Steve, who praises the courage of the Border's winter solstice pioneers Annette and Stuart Baker.

"It's hard to lead from the front - it's so easy to be criticised and torn down - there is always a fear of the unknown."

But this is how as individuals and a community we can help create a "well of energy" that never runs dry, according to Steve.

"We need to be gentle - with ourselves and each other," he says. "That is the true essence of courage and strength."