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You can be courageous or comfortable

Life is not predictable. But exercising courage, and having the courage of your convictions, can help you weather the worst storms.

I’ve been campaigning for Antarctica’s Ross Sea to be declared a Marine Protected Area for 2 years now. Twenty four nations, and the EU, preside over the decision. They’ve met four times in the past four years, and every time the issue comes up for a vote, Russia vetoes it.

There will soon be another opportunity to vote on the issue. Which is why I’ve helped organise a special dinner in Moscow, together with my friend José Maria Figueres, former President of Costa Rica and Co-Chair of the Global Oceans Commission.

We invited Russian dignitaries, key decision makers and ambassadors to hear us talk about the importance of protecting the Ross Sea and its wildlife. It’s one of the last great wilderness areas left on the planet.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu agreed to give a video address on protecting the Antarctic region to promote world peace. I offered to share my personal experience of swimming in this remote and magnificent marine wilderness. The dinner will take place next week.

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED

Five weeks ago, just as the RSVPs from dignitaries started coming in, I woke up with a sore back. At first I thought nothing of it, but it got steadily worse. I saw a physiotherapist who referred me to an orthopaedic surgeon. I’d slipped a disc between L4 and L5 (probably during a training session at sea during a particularly fierce Cape storm). “You can rest and see if it improves,” the doctor said. “But I think you’ll need surgery.”

My father was a surgeon. He always said the knife should be the last resort. So I rested for a week, but the pain kept getting worse and worse. And it was unrelenting. So I sought a second opinion. The second specialist told me that the prolapse was impacting my spinal nerve roots. “You’re beginning to lose significant power in your right leg.” I was also losing feeling in my toes. If we didn’t operate, I could have permanent nerve damage. Moreover, I would probably walk with a limp for the rest of my life and, it would be the end of my swimming career.

The man he strongly recommended to perform the procedure was renowned neurosurgeon 75 year old Dr Melvill.

FINDING BACKBONE

I met Dr Melvill in his offices and he explained the pros and cons of the operation. I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t scared. One day I was training for my next Antarctic swim, the following I was flat on my back. “A strong back is crucial for what I do”, I explained to the good doctor.

Dr Melvill put down his ink pen. “I want to tell you something,” he said. “I have a dog named Lewis.”

It turns out that Dr Melvill used to breed Siberian Huskies, and Lewis is his pride and joy. It’s no coincidence that his dog has the same name as me; he was named after me.

When he was born, Lewis the Husky was what is known as “a swimmer”. He was so weak that he couldn’t even stand. He just lay on his stomach helplessly trying to move his legs, as if he was treading water. The vet wanted to put him down, but Dr Melvill’s wife Merle was having none of it.

She held that puppy close to her body for weeks; she turned him, fed him and kept him warm. He went on to become their champion breeding dog.

COURAGEOUS CONVICTIONS

“Lewis,” Dr Melvill said to me, “my dog is going to be your first visitor when you get out of the high care ward. And we’re going to get you back in the ocean.” He had the courage of his convictions, and it was contagious. I agreed to have the operation.

A hospital bed is nobody’s favourite place to be. But on my second day, the door opened and there was the most magnificent Siberian husky I have ever seen. Lewis jumped straight up onto my bed and gave me an enormous sloppy kiss.

There’s something indescribably special about the bond between humans and dogs. While I was basking in the feeling, Dr Melvill was at the end of my bed pinching my toes. I could feel them again. “Lewis,” he said, “we’re going to get you right.”

The good news is I’ll be able to get back to Antarctica. The down side is that I need six weeks’ bed rest, and then another 9 – 12 months intensive rehabilitation, to recover. With the slip of a disc, which felt as arbitrary as a toss of a coin, my whole life had changed.

BIG DECISIONS

Two weeks in and I can now stand and I have started walking, albeit very slowly. And I’ve made a decision about Russia.

The banquet hall is booked. The dignitaries have accepted the invitation. And if that was not enough, Avaaz, the biggest lobby group in the world, just collected 1.3 million signatures urging world leaders to protect the Ross Sea. What was I to do?

I could cancel the event. I could make a video and share my experiences in the Ross Sea from a distance. But this is too important for me to do that. I care too much about the Ross Sea, and all the incredible animals that call it home. I believe that this event has the potential to change everything.

If we get this right the Ross Sea will become the biggest protected area on earth. So I’ve decided to get on a plane on Tuesday and fly to Russia.

It won’t be comfortable, but courage never is. You can be courageous, or you can be comfortable, but you can’t be both.

After Moscow, coincidentally I was scheduled to go to Siberia. Instead, I’ll come home and carry on my 6 weeks’ bed rest. And when that’s over I will visit a special Siberian husky. One who, together with his owners, taught me to draw courage from my convictions. Lewis the Husky reminded me how important it is to stay in the good fight.

I hope that very soon all of us, who have fought for the Ross Sea, will celebrate another courageous victory too.

Lewis Pugh is an endurance swimmer and the United Nations Patron of the Oceans

Photo credit: Michael Walker