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British Swimmer Breaks Two World Records in Antarctica Swim

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Updated December 20, 2005
On board MV Polar Star, Drake Passage, Southern Ocean
Dec. 20 2005

On the anniversary of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reaching the south pole, British swimmer Lewis Gordon Pugh has plunged into the icy waters off the antarctic peninsula to smash the world record for the most southern long distance swim ever undertaken. Wearing only Speedo trunks, goggles and a swimming cap, Lewis swam 1 kilometre (0.6 Miles) in 0°c (32°f) water.

Pugh, who has pioneered more swims around famous landmarks than any other swimmer in history (including a swim near the north pole in august this year) is now the first person to have completed a long distance swim in both the arctic and antarctic. After the swim he admitted that the antarctic waters were the most formidable. He said:

“As soon as i dived in, i had a screaming pain all over my body. After three minutes, I'd lost all feeling in my hands and feet. And after six minutes I lost all feeling throughout my arms and legs. I am not sure how I kept on going for so long. I had to concentrate all the time and swim as fast as I could to keep the cold out. I am ecstatic to have swum so close to the south pole! To have done it on the anniversary of Roald Amundsen reaching the south pole made it extra special. ”

Lewis’ team had to use a Norwegian / Canadian expedition ship to gain access to the swim site. The MV “Polar Star”, a 1A1 class ice breaker, cut through over 40 kilometres (25 miles) of thick pack ice to reach the antarctic peninsula. At 21h00 on 14 December 2005 at 65°10’ south, they located an ice-free area off Petermann island suitable for the record attempt. Despite it being dusk and heavily snowing, Lewis undertook the record swim that night rather than waiting for the next morning. Lewis said:

“I was very worried that the winds might blow all the pack ice and icebergs around Petermann island thereby ruining my chances of swimming. Antarctica is an unforgiving environment – if there is a window of opportunity you must grab it. ”

Lewis took 18 minutes and 10 seconds to complete the 1km (0.6 Miles) swim and was supported by a 10 person team based aboard the MV “Polar Star”. It included a team of sports scientists from the university of cape town and the sports science institute of south Africa who have collected physiological data during all his record polar swims. Head of the team, professor Tim Noakes said:

“Lewis is able to survive in these waters due to a combination of factors. When he enters the water, his core body temperature is extremely high (38.4°C) and he is able to maintain this temperature for up to 15 minutes in ice cold water. To my knowledge, this capacity has not been previously described. But most importantly he has an iron will and is genetically suited to handling extreme cold."

The team also included Dr. Damon Stanwell-Smith, a marine biologist from Polar Star expeditions. He patrolled the water in an inflatable boat during the swim to protect Lewis from any dangerous wildlife which might have posed a threat. He said:

“Leopard seals and killer whales hunt in these waters. Pugh would have stood little chance of survival if he had encountered one of them. Only two years ago a British Antarctic survey diver was tragically killed by a leopard seal at Rothera scientific base, which is close to Petermann island.”

Two days after the record swim, the British antarctic swimming expedition team sailed to deception island, just north of the antarctic peninsula, to undertake further scientific tests on Lewis. Here, he swam 1,650 meters (1 mile) in 2°c to 3°c (35°f to 37°f) water. The swim took 30 minutes and 30 seconds to complete. This broke the world record for the longest polar swim ever undertaken. Lewis said:

“To break two world records on one expedition is overwhelming. The swim at deception island was without question the hardest of my life”.

Professor Noakes said:

“Lewis’s swim in deception island was one of the most astonishing performances i have ever seen. I did not believe it possible to swim for 30 and a half minutes in 2 to 3 degree water in just Speedo trunks. Prior to our studies, no physiological data had been collected on people swimming in such cold water for so long. Lewis has helped us gain data which illustrate the narrow margins for survival in such cold water. Our data show that even he was at the absolute limits of his cold water tolerance at the finish of that swim.”

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