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An Interview with Lewis Gordon Pugh

Lewis Pugh is a very busy man. He has recently added “author” to his impressive list of achievements, with Achieving the Impossible having just been released. Exclus1ves’ Julie Wood caught up with him during his whirlwind book tour, and found out a little more about this interesting man.

EB: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself, please? About your background, and so on?

LP: It was interesting last night because when they were introducing me, they said: “A lawyer, a swimmer, an environmentalist, an SAS soldier, a polar bear”… it’s quite difficult to box me. I grew up in England for the first ten years and then moved out to South Africa, and qualified as a lawyer in this country, and then went back to Britain. I worked in a big London law firm doing Maritime law and Environmental law. I got bored and then joined the British SAS. It was five very exciting years of my life, and then I’d always had this passion for swimming, so started swimming around the world, in some of the most exotic and distant and dangerous locations. I was very, very lucky because I started swimming when most of the landmarks in the world had not been swum. So between myself and two other swimmers we pioneered swims in places where people didn’t necessarily think that you could swim and, the other two swimmers, I like to think that they left me with all the hard swims, especially with the cold ones, you know in the Arctic and the Antarctic. And through that journey of going around the world and seeing all those different places, you grow to really love these places, and grow to appreciate their fragility and how we really do need to protect them. Then about five years ago I started really talking about the environment and it was the right time in my life, I was experienced enough, then it really became a voice for the Arctic and other areas which are really endangered.

EB: I know that one of your remarkable features is that you are able to swim in very cold conditions. How did you go about training yourself to do that?

LP: There’s no water in Britain or in South Africa which is cold enough to do the training, so we actually had to build a special swimming pool. So we built a swimming pool down in Cape Town, and in it we threw a tonne and a half of ice every day. So we located it next to the I & J fish factory and they’d bring the fish ashore from the south Atlantic and freeze it immediately, and that’s where we started. We started at 18°C and every day I swam for a set time, and then we lowered the temperature gradually each and every day until we got down to 0°C. We did these tests because I was trying to do this swim off Antarctica, so it wasn’t like I had a dream , okay, go do a swim off Antarctica, and I’d train in Gauteng and just dive into the sea off Antarctica… You’ve really got to do a simulated test as best you can in South Africa before you go off.

EB: I’m sure, yes. I know you don’t just swim. I mean, that’s not all you do every day. Do you have a day job that you keep yourself busy with?

LP: I love swimming, swimming’s my passion and I hope I swim until the last day of my life, so I really, really do enjoy swimming, but swimming for me is simply a way of carrying a message. It’s been a very effective way of carrying a message about what’s happening in the Arctic and what’s been happening in the Himalayas, because I’m doing swims in places where you shouldn’t be able to swim, and you can only swim because of climate change. You shouldn’t be able to do a swim at the North Pole, it should be frozen over. In 2007 there was a significant melting of the ice at the North Pole and therefore there was an open patch of sea and I was able to do a swim there. The same happened now on Mount Everest. I climbed up Everest, did a swim in a lake that never used to be there; there used to be a glacier there. These swims are very effective at telling a story. But, sorry, so what do I do on a daily basis? I’m training for these swims, I do these swims, and then I go around the world doing speeches, and meeting various heads of state and big business leaders, and talking about protecting the environment. I was recently elected as a Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum, and it involves various meetings at Davos and these sorts of places where I have to go and present views on what we need to do to protect the environment.

EB: Do you ever have any free time, and what do you do, if you do? It doesn’t sound like you do!

LP: I’m one of the lucky people that, my job is my passion, is my hobby. I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant: I truly feel that this is what I’m meant to do, to swim and to talk about protecting the environment, my two passions. And so I do have spare time and I love to read, and I love just to go to a national park and just relax and just think. But most of the time, it’s swimming or talking. I’ve got two dogs – one’s a Jack Russell and she’s one year old now, and I’ve got another dog called Kanga, and I got him from a rescue shelter, and there’s nothing I enjoy more than just walking them on the beach in Cape Town. I find that very destressing and very relaxing.

EB: I love dogs as well, so I know what you mean. Achieving the Impossible is your first book. Could you just tell me a little bit about it, please?

LP: It’s a book about my life… I wrote it because I got to 35, and it was interesting to look around at all my friends who had been with me at University (at Cambridge University or at UCT) and I remember we all left University or left school with these dreams. It was amazing how many people were actually still on track, and how many people seemed to have left their dreams behind in doing something entirely different which I was never sure they were really passionate about. Essentially it’s a story about myself, really following my dream and I tried to tell the story about how I achieved what some people felt was impossible with some of these swims, and I talk about vision, leadership, teamwork, courage, determination, vasbyt, more vasbyt, and a bit more vasbyt, and all those sort of central ingredients. It’s not like it’s a chapter on leadership, a chapter on vision, none of that. I tell my story, and then the message just comes through, quite subtly. It’s not like I’m Moses standing on Mount Sinai saying: “This is the way to lead a team”. I tell you how I led a team at the North Pole or on Mount Everest, what I did right and sometimes what I did wrong, and I hope people can take away from it my view that very few things are impossible to achieve, if you are able to put together the essential ingredients. Most of us give up at the 11th hour, often. And I think there’s nothing more unforgivable, for a number of reasons. Number one, because if you give up at the 11th hour you’ve wasted all those 11 hours, and number two, you just don’t realise how close you are to achieving your dreams and so many people give up just before. And quitting can become a habit, so it is one of the central themes, of having vasbyt. Very few things which are really worth achieving come easily. Sometimes they do, but most of the time you really have to work hard and cleverly.

EB: Please tell me about your most recent swim. I mean, it was in the most incredible place, in the shadow of Everest. What was it like?

LP: I gave a speech about the experience at a conference called TED, a renowned conference that’s held twice a year, once in Europe and once in the States. It’s a conference for thought leaders and I was asked to give a speech on the Everest swim, and during the Everest swim, I changed. I changed as a person, I honestly did. That mountain changed me, and I gave a speech about it for nine minutes. (Go and watch the video or read the transcript here).

EB: Do you have any tips for people who want to make a difference but obviously can’t go and do it on as grand a scale as you are at the moment? What can people do to combat climate change in their own homes?

LP: You know, I often get asked this question and it’s not like two people are the same, but what I’m asking people to do is to look at their lives, wherever they may be. I mean, you may be a housewife or a mother in Gauteng and you’re driving your kid to school, you know, and you’ve got one kid in the back and you’re driving 30 kilometres to school and 30 kilometres back, so 60 kilometres in a day, to take one child to school. Is there a possibility that you can put a few more kids, some friends’ kids in the car, and start saving on those types of things? Or you may be the owner of a business and things like recycling and changing the light bulbs, and where you get your energy supply just seem like trivial matters. One of my sponsors, SAP, last year instead of flying so much decided to start doing video conferencing, change the light bulbs to environmentally-friendly light bulbs, put solar panelling on lots of their buildings – they saved €80-million last year! I mean, the businessmen of the world who are not taking environmental matters seriously are just wasting money, aside from damaging the environment it’s wasting money and in this economic climate you just can’t afford to do that. So it’s a question, I think, of everybody looking at what they’re doing and asking themselves a really, really simple question, and that is: “What can I do in a more environmentally-friendly manner? What simple step can I take which can ensure that my children have a future?” and just take it. If you’ve got a problem and you multiply it by 50-million people, which is the population of this country, it becomes unsolvable, but if you’ve got a problem and you divide it by 50-million people, it becomes solvable. So if each of us, everyone says this all the time but it’s true, each of us should do that small thing and it’ll make a significant difference. The other thing I’m asking people to do is, I think it’s so important that we reconnect with nature. I was at Shamwari, a game reserve down in the Eastern Cape last weekend, and there they’re bringing some leopards and cheetahs and lions from Europe which have been used in circuses and zoos, and reintroducing them back into Africa, and I saw this leopard walking along in the veld there, and all I could think of was, maybe it’s time, well it certainly is time that we reintroduce ourselves back into the wild. It was only a few years ago that more of the world’s population now live in urban areas than rural areas and how can you expect people to truly care about the environment and protect it, if they’re disconnected from it? Most children in this country have not been to a national park. I think with these incredible national parks in this country that that’s fundamentally wrong. I think every child in every country, not just South Africa, every year should go to a national park, and it should be part of their basic curriculum. And the decision makers, if you look at the members of the cabinet of our country you wonder, sometimes, with the decisions they take, how many of them have honestly spent good periods of time in national parks and at one with nature. And we have to appreciate that we are part of nature, we must work with nature; the environment is our lifeline. So, you asked me what can we do – I’d love to see parents, if they can afford it, take their children to national parks and you know, the government national parks are just fantastic, and a lot of them are not prohibitively expensive. You will only ever truly protect those things which we love, and by taking kids to national parks we’re going to build a generation of South Africans who love the environment and will protect it for their children.

EB: You’ve been to many amazing places in the world. Is there anything that you’ve seen that you know you’ll never forget?

LP: Mount Everest is a very spiritual place, it’s a beautiful mountain. You walk from a little town called Lukla and start climbing up the mountain and when you come round the corner and you see Mount Everest for the first time, it takes your breath away, it’s like “Wow!. It’s massive, beautiful. I’ve seen some glaciers in the world which have been, which are just turquoise blue blue glaciers up in the Arctic. It’s tragic to think that because of climate change, because of man’s actions, they’re melting away. Our children will, perhaps, unless we’re able to stop climate change, not see these incredible sights. The first time I saw a polar bear… It’s just the size of these animals, their paws and their beauty. And Cape Town. I think Cape Town’s the most beautiful city in the world.

EB: So what’s next? Do you have anything else planned that you’d like to share?

LP: Each year or two I do a big expedition. We’re now in the planning phases for a very huge one, the biggest of my life. It’s a swim, I think it’s going to take me about a hundred and twenty days of continuous swimming (obviously I’ll come ashore at night). I’m not telling people where it is because I’m actually not sure it’s possible, so we’re going to do a recce of it very shortly and see whether it is possible to swim in this place. It’s an ecosystem which is under threat and unless we can protect it there is no future. So I’ve done campaigns in the Arctic, I’ve done campaigns in the Himalayas and this is the next major ecosystem which I want to draw attention to.

EB: That sounds exciting! I hope you can do the swim.

LP: I hope so!

EB: I think that’s all the questions I have for you, so thank you very much for the interview! I hope you enjoy the rest of your tour.

LP: Thank you for coming through. Thank you very much!


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