Swimming is a solitary pursuit. It’s just you and the water. Yet preparing for a swim in Antarctica is anything but a solitary endeavour.
Aside from the physical preparation, there are expedition logistics and planning, honing campaign messaging, and the quiet, considered diplomacy that brings about real results.
I don’t just swim for the love of it; I swim to protect the oceans. And it takes a team of dedicated people to get that job done.
I started my training in the 16°C water with nineteen-year-old student Jadon Wessels. He pushed me hard and got me fit. He also made me feel my age.
Then I was put through my paces by Max Holloway, a marine physicist who wasn’t afraid of the cold – which was just as well when water temperatures dropped to 4°C. He got me cold adapted.Now we move to the final phase in Antarctica. This time the two people by my side will not be swimmers.
Russian ice hockey legend and UN Patron of the Polar Regions Slava Fetisov will be my second. He will be the last person I speak to before I dive into the icy water.
Slava was the greatest defenseman in history. In Russia he enjoys the same level of admiration as Pelé does in Brazil. “The world now needs more defenders and protectors,” he told me when agreeing to join the team.And next to him will be José María Figueres. José is the former president of Costa Rica, and chairman of Antarctica 2020, a group of world leaders who have been working diligently behind the scenes to bring the nations responsible for protecting Antarctica together. I’ve never met a more skillful bridge-builder or a more natural leader. It must run in the family – his sister Christiana Figueres brokered the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement.
José and Slava will both be on the ice edge during my swim. When I breathe right I will see Slava, when I breathe left, José.
For eight long years the world has been trying to create a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in East Antarctica. There are two things lacking: consensus and a sense of urgency.
Which is why I will be swimming 1km across a supra-glacial lake in East Antarctica on 22 January, with these extraordinary men beside me, and my exceptional team behind me.
After the swim, José, Slava and I will travel to Moscow to meet Russia’s leaders. Under international law, 25 nations plus the EU need to agree on any measures to protect the continent. Twenty-three nations and the EU agree. Just Russia and China still need to be persuaded. In Russia cold water swimming has currency. Every Russian leader will have been taken by his parents to swim in a frozen lake. I won’t need to tell them what I have been through.
A MILLION KILOMETRE SWIM
During our discussions we will focus on the things that unite us – such as this precious opportunity to create a million square kilometre MPA in the Southern Ocean, one of the world’s last great wildernesses.
Will we succeed? Well, what I’ve learned in 15 years of international diplomacy is that there is always a promised land. One just needs to find it.
Lewis Pugh is an endurance swimmer and the UN Patron of the Oceans