5 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Gunnhild From Vikings
You may not have heard of Icelandic actress Ragga Ragnars — or her full name, Ragnheiður Ragnarsdóttir — but if you’re a fan of the TV show Vikings, you’ll know the character she plays. Appearing in season five, Gunnhild is a strong, fierce shield maiden and formidable warrior. Well, it turns out, the actress who plays her is pretty hardcore herself. And her life has been almost as eventful as an episode of Vikings!
She swam in the Olympics twice.
Yup, before becoming an actress, Ragga was an Olympic swimmer, representing Iceland in the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Games. “I was training about 14 times a week, eight to ten sessions in the pool most weeks and four to six strength training sessions, weight lifting and various other workouts,” she recalls. “I would love to incorporate yoga, pilates, TRX training and different workouts to my land training. I would be up at 4.30 in the morning for a practice, then I would be back in the afternoon for more training. It was quite rigorous and hard but looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I loved it. From every hard bit of waking up early to tough sets in the pool or gym.” Meanwhile, we’re just over here trying to psych up for the 6 am spinning class.
She lived in South Africa for a while.
Ragga was on track to represent her country at the 2012 Olympics in Athens and came to SA to train. She lived in Pretoria and learnt to speak Afrikaans while she was here. “I always miss South Africa and my friends over there,” she says. “I really fell in love with the country and the people. I even learnt Afrikaans while staying there and some of it still lingers. I think I could still manage a conversation actually.”
Watch Ragga speak Afrikaans…
She pulled out of her third Olympics because she was pregnant.
Living in SA wasn’t the only big event in Ragga’s life while she was training for the 2012 Olympics. She fell pregnant with her son, Breki and ended up making the decision to pull out of the Games just weeks before she was due to compete. “I found out while swimming the European Championships in Budapest,” she recalls. Ragga initially carried on training as usual, but she had been feeling fatigued, run down and getting frequently ill for nearly a year. Eventually, she decided to listen to her body. “It was quite the rollercoaster to go through, as I had planned on trying to start a family with my partner after the Olympics. I keep thinking my son just couldn’t wait and decided to come a little early. I kept training until right before the Olympics and finally decided to give myself and my body a break.”
She’s a fitness junkie.
Ragga no longer clocks 14 training sessions a week, but she still works out regularly. “I work out every day and I am in great shape,” she says. “I even compete every year and swim a few local meets here in Iceland. I still can and I can still win. I love that.” But it’s not all swimming and gym work. Ragga loves getting outdoors and doing activities where her son can join in.
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“We go skiing together, we paddle board and hike and now he has started soccer and swimming and we go together and I swim while he has his swim training. I sit on the sideline while he has soccer training and I pretend to know how to work with a soccer ball, but he beats me every time!” Her love of fitness also stands her in good stead on the the show, where she needs to be in top physical condition. “Some days feel like you are training for the Olympics or even at the Olympics,” she says. “The physicality of my role on the show is so amazing – fights and all kinds of stunts that take massive amounts of energy to train for and then perform on camera.”
She was a fan of the show before she starred in it.
“I had set my sights on Vikings long before I stepped onto the set,” she says. “I saw Vikings years ago and thought, that’s where I will be. I’m very tall, athletic and, of course, Scandinavian, so it just felt right to set my goal on the amazing show that celebrated such traits.” The role she landed requires all her fitness and strength. “I thank my lucky stars to be in good shape because some days on set are very harsh,” she says. “Stunts, running uphill multiple times for multiple takes, while punching a 10-kilo shield and making a sword fly through the air is hard work. Sometimes it’s also in freezing weather, rain, mud and water. I love it, but it can definitely be a challenge to keep the mood positive when you are freezing and exhausted.”
She also had to learn to swing a sword and axe, wield a shield and fire a bow and arrow. “It was quite hard in the beginning,” she recalls. “I had to learn a lot of steps and manoeuvres with the sword that did not come naturally to me.” There was also an incident where she proudly posted a pic of her hands, bloodied from archery practice, only to learn she wasn’t as tough as she’d thought. “I was just doing it wrong and I should be able to shoot all those arrows without any blood or bruising.”
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Another challenge: breathing. “It comes so naturally to me to hold my breath when I am doing something very physical because that’s how I’m conditioned from years and years in the pool. ‘Hold your breath and finish the race.’ So sometimes I would start fighting and turn blue because I wasn’t breathing.” The stunt team encouraged her to scream during practice sessions, which helped. It also helped her channel her frustrations. “Sometimes, after a long hard session, I felt like it had been a therapy session since I got all my frustration out by screaming and pretending to kill everyone. It was amazing.”
Catch Ragga in Vikings on Showmax.