The Polar Academy

Craig Mathieson, June 2014

rsgs-polaracademyMuch has happened since I introduced The Polar Academy in the spring edition of The Geographer.  This unique project is really starting to gather momentum now, with the first group of youths and their parents attending SportScotland’s Glenmore Lodge on the first selection weekend to determine who will be picked for the life-changing Arctic expedition.

The selection weekend is demanding.  Nigel Williams, Head of Training at Glenmore Lodge and my right-hand man on next year’s expedition, and I have designed a course which pushes participants well beyond what they thought possible.

The weekend started at 21:00 on the Friday, with a welcoming meeting and a brief run-down on what was in store (up to this point, I had deliberately made no information available).  There were more than a few nervous faces around the room.

You have to remember, The Polar Academy is aimed at the ‘invisible kids’ in our education system; good kids who just drift through school.  They have fantastic aspirations in life; they just lack self-confidence or motivation to do anything about it.  So they tend to hide away, and are usually the victims of bullying as they are easy targets.  Having now spent many years lecturing in schools, I know these kids have greatness within them; they just need the catalyst to release it.  It has to be something truly life-changing, something they really have to work hard to attain but, overall, something which inspire their peers – like The Polar Academy.

Early on the Saturday morning, I asked everyone to get dressed in wetsuits, to stand around the specially-designed kayak rolling pool, and to practise tying a series of different knots on a length of 5mm floating rope.  Not everyone could swim, so when I then said that I wanted them to be sealed in a kayak, capsized upside-down, then tie the knots they’d just learned before being allowed to pop back up to the surface, concerned faces surrounded me.

rsgs-polaracademy-poolNow, I do not do danger, nor do I ever take risks; everything I do is for a reason.  This task aimed to demonstrate that, even under a perceived stressful situation (upside-down underwater), with the correct mind-set you can still perform complex tasks.  After a demonstration, I selected probably the most nervous kid, and reassured her that she could do this task and that I would be right beside her throughout.  I showed her how to fill her lungs properly with air (being an ex-military diver I know a few tricks), and counted to three before capsizing her in the kayak.  With glass sides on the pool, everyone could see clearly what was happening under the water.  However, I was not expecting what actually happened.  Not only had this nervous young lady tied all the knots, she thought (wrongly) that she had made a mistake with the first one, so untied them all, retied them, and then surfaced – incredible!  She was clearly proud of what she had just done; but the other kids watching were blown away and couldn’t wait to have a go.

rsgs-polaracademy-climbingwallOver the next 48 hours, they climbed, abseiled, canoed, kayaked, orienteered and hill-walked.  They were exhausted but flowing with pride at what they had achieved.  Their parents were now seeing what their children were capable of, being far more than they ever dreamed of.

The final task was a presentation that each parent and child had to do in front of the Polar Academy team, stating why they should be picked for the expedition and what they would do to inspire their peers on their return.  Each pair had 15 minutes to make their case.

What followed was incredibly emotional.  Some of these families have nothing, they have a survival existence.  For almost three hours my instructors and I listened intently to all ten families speaking from the heart.  Afterwards we were all left without any doubt of the huge impact The Polar Academy will have on those selected, but also the positive impact it’s already having on those just being considered.  This is the chance their parents never got; this is the catalyst this generation needs.

I have two other selection weekends before I announce the final expedition team and my plans for those not selected.  The ten expedition members will return to Scotland changed people, ready to inspire their peers.  This is what The Polar Academy is all about – inspiring the youth of Scotland.  As an explorer, I love speaking to schools, trying to motivate and inspire this generation; however, when the ‘ten’ start to do the same job it will stir the heart of every youth in Scotland – and this is only the beginning.