Title photo: 2017 winner Fredrika Ek with jury members (left to right) Fredrik Erixon, Cathy O'Dowd, Gijs Loning, Kim Scholze, and Matthias Aßmann.
I've recently returned from ISPO - Europe's largest outdoor sport trade show. One of the highlights was handing out the 2017 Adventurer of the Year to the inspirational Swedish cycle-tourer, Fredrika Ek.
Fredrika spent 1042 days on her bike, solo and unsupported, covering 51,000 kilometres across 45 different countries. In the process she raised €75,000 for Action Aid.
You can read my full interview with Fredrika about her adventure here.
- What is the origin and purpose of the European Adventurer of the Year Award?
- Who gets picked and why?
- What does winning it bring to the career of an adventurer?
I spoke to 2017 winner Fredrika Ek, to jury head Matthias Aßmann and to 2016 Adventurer of the Year winner Louis-Philippe Loncke.
Disclosure: I am a member of the seven-person jury. The other jury members are Matthias Aßmann, Fredrik Erixon, Kim Scholze, Olaf Beck, Nina Herlin and Gijs Loning.
Matthias Aßmann of Mandel Media heads the 7-person jury. I asked him why Fredrika was the winner for 2017. It was a close decision, with three front-runners, two of them being tied on votes from the rest of the jury.
"The decision was influenced the fact that Fredrika did it with a limited experience. She was following a dream, and inspiring others to do so. And by the fact that she was not planning to come home as a superstar, but rather looking to give meaning to the adventure, through her fundraising. "
How did it all get started?
The European Adventurer of the Year was set up seven years ago, by Fredrik Erixon. Its origin came from a national award, the Swedish Adventurer of the Year. "We just wanted to get people together and to celebrate something," said Matthias. "Observing the inspiration it gave, the handshakes and the hugs, the togetherness, we said this should be on a European level.
"The National Geographic Adventurer of the Year is on a more scientific level, more about research. We wanted to turn towards the consumer, to speak to the grassroots."
Over the years, the award has become ever more sharply focused on the inspirational component. "Seven years ago we had Felix Baumgartner, jumping from a very expensive device from a very high altitude, with an astronuat suit. It was regarded as an adventure. But in developing this project, we have turned away from the money, from the RedBull character.
"The person has come into focus. What was their dream, their goal? What was the idea? What kind of organisation and setup was there?
"Money buys you adventures, of course, and buys the experience, but it's the the will and the heart that is worth rewarding."
I asked Matthias how they go about finding these grassroots inspirational adventurers. "It’s through various sources, done with the help of many people who know about the award," he said. "It’s getting easier and easier with social media, we are tracking the word adventure.
"We plan that in the future it will not be an award for the one with the best logging experience and abilities. It will rather be the one which we discover. Fredrika was discovered by people who wanted to nominate her for the Swedish award.
"Through social media we have more possibilities than ever to get our adventure out. And through social media it is getting more fair. The adventurer has more possibilities to have their own blog, their own channel and followership. They are not relying on money to buy media."
How does Fredrika Ek feel about being 2017 winner?
"I’m going to be honest," she told me as we sat outside one the huge ISPO halls, watching skateboarders doing mind-bending tricks. " I didn’t know the award existed. Or ISPO either. I received a phone call a week ago, saying ‘what are you doing next week?’ I said ‘nothing’. Doing laundry maybe, because I still haven’t done that!"
Fredrika had only been back from her cycle adventure for a week at that point. "They told me ‘you should come to Munich because you’ve won this thing’ and I said ‘what thing?’ So now I’m here. It's fun!" She laughed, half abashed, half amused by the attention.
I asked her how she felt about having won the award. "It’s a big compliment," she said. "Of course, it’s nice to have someone pat you on the back."
But it turns out the award ties into her complicated feelings about having finally come home after 1042 days of cycling. "In the last weeks people have said congratulations to me, as if this was the aim - to finish. The whole thing for me was to make the trip so long that it would never finish. Looking at it now, I wish more people would have said congratulations when I started, because no one did. And my dream was, still is, to ride my bike around the world. It’s not to have done it.
"It’s just two weeks, so I'm not sure how I feel about it all yet. But I’m overwhelming happy to be home with my family."
What the award will do is help Fredrika with her next big aim, which is to continue the fundraising for Action Aid. Through the cycle adventure, she raised €75,000, but she's set her sights on 1 million kroner (€100,000). "Just because I crossed this imaginary finish line made up a few years ago, doesn’t mean that all I’ve worked for just goes away."
"The view, the funny encounters, it's all been amazing. But my perspective about this trip has really changed. The views have stopped now but the purpose is very clear, that doesn’t rely on me collecting kilometres. Now I’m looking forward to doing a lot of presentations and speaking and trying to share the experiences I’ve had and the lessons I’ve gotten. And keep collecting these funds."
This award will give a credibility to her achievement which should make these future goals easier to achieve.
What did the award bring to the 2016 winner?
The 2016 European Adventure of the Year was Belgian adventurer and desert expert, Louis-Philippe Loncke. He was recognised for his unsupported traverse of the Bolivian salt flats of Salar de Coipasa and Salar de Uyuni, Death Valley and the Simpson Desert. He joined us at ISPO to congratulate Fredrika and I asked him what he had gained from receiving the award.
"It brought credibility, as getting any award does. This is not about having the largest crowd of followers. It’s about the independent votes of the jury. For me, it gave credibility with the local Belgian press, with international press, and among other adventurers. It means this guy has done something!"
I asked Louis-Phillipe what he had been up to in 2017 and he told me it had been a year of planning and earning. He attempted to do a 5-day unsupported crossing of the GR20 in Corsica (more normally done in two weeks). "It was - not a complete catastrophe - but I failed in that it took me 9 days instead of 5. I had to buy food on the way. This was very mountainous, rocky terrain. Completely different from my desert crossings. I had immense pain in one foot."
With the help of doctors afterwards, he uncovered the problem. "For the next expeditions, I need to take care of it. I now know my weakness, I have to find a way to manage it. What I plan in the future will be as hard as before but even longer."
His next project, due to start in August, is an unsupported winter crossing of Tasmania. He estimates the project will only cost around €4,000 and he will pay for that himself. "I made a lot of money working for a year as an IT consultant," he said, but he was still at ISPO to look for possible sponsors and brand partners. "The advantage of a sponsor is that the brands then want to communicate about the expedition."
A few days after the end of ISPO I asked Louis-Phillipe how his ISPO visit had gone. He wrote back to say "It's about connection. You'll never get sponsors on the spot unless you pre-arrange a meeting. Those fairs are made for brands to sell and meet the distributors. There are not many outdoor athletes around.
"I've been to ISPO now 7 times. My first time I passed by every single booth. Just in case. I had one objective for all the brands I knew: ask the contact details of the marketing person. Then I said I would write. I never did really. I went home, got back to work and never sorted all those business cards.
"Now my approach is different. I take a longer time with the brands, the connection is getting better. I have stuff to show like photos. Some Belgian distributors have seen me on TV or in articles. And since winning the European Adventurer of the Year award last year, they see that I do great stuff and I have great coverage.
"Also, I think the now people are aware and listen more to "newbies". They know that someone unknown can suddenly pull off something big and be all over social media."
What challenges is he expecting to face in the crossing? "I have to take care of my feet, and deal with the cold and the wet." Winter is the rainy season in Tasmania. "I’m going to have a lot of rain and a lot of cold at the same time. I’m going to be miserable, I plan to lose between 20 and 30 kilogram!” Louis-Phillipe looked delighted at the thought of the upcoming suffering.
And after that? "In 2017 I did a lot of preparation for projects," he told me. "I started the Atacama desert preparation, I got connected with locals there who are willing to help, and some scientists."
Why awards matter for adventurers
In a world where there are no rankings, no championships and no gold medals, awards (along with 'records') are one of the few ways you can set yourself apart. And awards have the advantage over records of having being given to you by an independent panel of (one hopes) experts.
Awards open doors - to media, to future sponsors, to publishers, to speaker bureaus.
How do you make yourself a contender?
- Be nominated! Nominate yourself (plenty of adventurers do). Or better yet, get friends to nominate you.
- Spread the love. Nominate other people. (Being active in reaching out to award juries put you on their radar too.)
- Have a home base (a website) that explains, briefly and clearly, what you've done and why it's significant. And then lays out the evidence to prove it.
- Make sure your adventure is trackable. (As Matthias said above, juries are looking to identify grassroots heroes. They need to be able to find you.)
- Do all the sensible things above and then let it go - be yourself, live your adventure, love your experience ... and let that passion shine through to your audience.