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Swimming Upstream: Andrea Nagel Reviews 21 Yaks and a Speedo by Lewis Pugh

21 Yaks and a SpeedoBy Andrea Nagel for The Times

Polar bears swim the icy waters of the North and South poles all the time, but they have 10cm of blubber and thick fur to keep them insulated. Lewis Pugh has only a swimming cap, a Speedo and his superhuman determination. He has based his career on setting himself extraordinarily high-risk goals with a high pain factor for which you need a bionic body.

Luckily, despite some people believing that many of his swimming expeditions, including the most northerly and southerly long-distance swims in the world, were impossible, Pugh has never lost so much as a digit.

In his latest book, 21 Yaks and a Speedo: How to achieve your impossible, Pugh distils his experiences into bite-sized chapters, each with its own motivational message.

Vasbyt is the message of one of these chapters.

“Whenever I thought of quitting, I would just ask myself a simple question: ‘Lewis, can you take just one more step?’ If the answer was ‘yes’, then I’d take it,” he writes.

“In writing this book, I wanted to tell short, pithy stories that can be read in five minutes,” he says. “The idea was to take my experiences in some of the most remote parts of the world and to relate them to everyday situations which all of us face to illustrate the everyday concepts of team work, courage, hope and, of course, vasbyt.”

One chapter tells the story of Pugh’s mission to swim across the Maldives archipelago to highlight the effect of global warming on the country.

Halfway through the 13-day swim, the team boat breaks down and they are forced to make a plan or turn back. The thing that comes across clearly when reading the book, and talking with the man, is that Pugh is not a quitter.

In the distance his team manager, Major General Tim Toyne Sewell, sees a yacht he believes belongs to Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich. After a call by “The General” to the club’s former manager, Jose Mourinho, and much to the consternation of Pugh, the team find themselves on the yacht. Pugh is disappointed that he hadn’t believed that all it would take was asking for help to get it.

The message of the chapter? “When we limit our beliefs about what is possible, we don’t ask for help. We’re not even out of the stable and we’ve already given up the race.”

This kind of humility is uncharacteristic of Pugh, but then he is a man who has achieved remarkable things, and he consequently has plenty to teach us ordinary folk.

When he’s not planning an expedition or not undertaking world-saving ecological projects, his time is taken up by motivational speaking.

The book is all pretty rah rah, blow your trumpet stuff, but it’s impossible not to get drawn in to the magnitude of Pugh’s achievements. He manages to achieve the telling of his stories and the morals that go with them with impressive aplomb, pretty much like everything he does.

  • 21 Yaks and a Speedo is published by Jonathan Ball

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