Strictly’s JJ Chalmers’ emotional Remembrance Sunday as he celebrated fallen friends
Strictly star and former Royal Marine JJ Chalmers may have swapped the parade ground for the dance floor, but he struggles to shake off his soldier mentality – even wanting to salute the judges.
The TV presenter, who suffered horrific injuries in a 2011 Afghanistan bomb blast, likens Shirley Ballas to a brigadier and Craig Revel-Horwood and Motsi Mabuse to colonels.
He says: “If I pass them in the corridor, I instantly straighten up, call them ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’ and I’m one step short of saluting them. It’s how I am wired.
“Coming off the dancefloor for their comments feels like a debrief after a patrol, where your bosses tell you what you did right and wrong, and where you can get better.”
It has been an emotional week for JJ – real name John-James. After wowing judges and audiences alike with his foxtrot last Saturday, he took some time out to remember his fallen friends the next day – armistice day.
He says: “Remembrance Sunday was mixed emotions, coming after Saturday’s high. I went for a long walk, and got some skies above me for 11 o’clock, then I spoke to mates from the Marines and Invictus days.”
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His thoughts focused on two friends in particular, Ollie Augustin and Sam Alexander. They were killed in the same blast that left JJ injured.
He says: “The overarching emotion is sadness,. But there is a joy in remembering your time with them. Then you pick yourself up and go, ‘Alright what would the lads want me to do right now? Go out there and live life.’”
While JJ admits he “carries around certain demons” from that time, he is determined they will not get the better of him. He adds: “You can let it break you, or you can let it make you, and that is what I strive to do.”
JJ has wowed Strictly fans with his amazing dance skills
(Image: Ray Burmiston/BBC/PA Wire)
JJ was a lance corporal when his unit were posted to Afghanistan in 2011. One day, out on foot patrol to clear a suspected bomb-making factory, one of his colleagues stepped on an IED. It was a life-changing “blink of an eye”.
He recalls: “Everything was completely normal, I was speaking to somebody, then I was on my back. Ears ringing, the dust settling, and in more pain than I’ve ever experienced.
“Within two seconds I figured out roughly what had happened, and then time showed down. I began to hang on for dear life and the 25 minutes for the helicopter to come felt like a lifetime.” JJ was left with a broken neck, both arms nearly wrenched off, two fingers gone, his legs torn open, a shattered face, and burst eardrums.
JJ was a lance corporal when his unit were posted to Afghanistan in 2011
(Image: JJ Chalmers)
He says: “At the very initial point it was luck that I was alive, but then begins the point of gratitude, as it was the hard work of exceptional young Marines, the helicopter crews and the surgeons, that I am here today.”
Back in the UK JJ was in a coma for a week, and had 30 operations, as his body was effectively rebuilt.
With the support of his wife Kornelia, he pushed on and even became a sports star, taking a gold in cycling at the Invictus Games.
JJ and professional dance partner Amy Dowden (the sergeant major in his world) have made clear improvements since the show began.
JJ was in a coma for a week, and had 30 operations, as his body was effectively rebuilt
(Image: JJ Chalmers)
He says: “Amy works me so hard, and I am completely in awe of her. I look up to her like I used to look at the guys in the green berets who inspired me to go the distance and become a marine.” JJ, who left the military in 2016, has been touched by the support he’s received during the show from the Armed Forces, and veterans community, but particularly by bereaved parents and partners of those who have died in combat.
He has also had messages from pal Prince Harry, who he became close to through The Invictus Games.
JJ adds: “At first he thought it was hilarious, but then he said he wanted to take the mickey but couldn’t, as I was actually quite good at it. There’s a lot of fun to be had about the glitter and sparkles, but when it actually comes down to the dancing, he’s just happy and striving towards a positive ending.”
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Amy Dowden and JJ Chalmers have proved that they are the perfect dancing pair
After last week’s success there is pressure on JJ and Amy to do well tonight. The pair are to perform a jive to Bette Midler’s Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. The high-energy dance has been stretching him to the max.
And he is having to battle with greater physical barriers than most, although he reveals it has been less of an issue than expected, thanks to some nifty choreography.
JJ explains: “Amy puts her right hand in her pocket when she creates the dances so she has to build everything to go to the left. It’s clever and means we can work around my limitations without it really being noticeable.”
Shirley Ballas is JJ's number one fan
He is aware they have not yet had to do any routines with lifts, but despite acknowledging that “my right arm is essentially out of action” he is not going to be beaten that easily.
JJ says: “I don’t know if it will be a lift, or more Amy picking herself up on top of me. But I will 100% try to do it. My purpose in being here is to show the opportunity I’m given, to be alive when others aren’t, is not wasted.”
Strictly Come Dancing is on BBC1 tonight at 7.10pm.