Five Things I Learned From Craig Challen

Conor McLaughlin
May 13 · 5 min read

Last Tuesday night I had the opportunity to hear from 2019 Australian of the Year Craig Challen!

Fogarty Foundation Scholars with Craig after his presentation

Craig Challen agreed to speak to the Fogarty Foundation Scholars, a leadership program run by Annie Fogarty at UWA that I am a part of. Before Craig spoke, I discussed the work of the McCusker Centre for Citizenship at UWA. Their work, led by Michelle Scott, encourages young Western Australians to engage in active citizenship through completing internships with not for profit organisations (https://www.mccuskercentre.uwa.edu.au/). Within this context of helping others through citizenship, I was lucky enough to introduce Craig!

Craig Challen, SC, OAM was joint winner of the 2019 Australian of the Year. Craig is an Australian technical diver and cave explorer and a veterinary surgeon by trade. Craig is an exceptional West Australian. I am sure you have heard about the Thai cave rescue that occurred last year because it’s truly an incredible example of global citizenship (https://abcnews.go.com/alerts/thailand-cave-rescue).

In 2018 Craig, along with his dive partner Richard Harris were involved in a cave rescue operation in Thailand to evacuate 12 children and one adult from the flooded Tham Luang Cave system. Craig was awarded the Star of Courage (SC) and Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) by the Governor-General of Australia for his role in the rescue. He was also appointed a Companion of the Order of the Direkgunabhorn by the King of Thailand.

To allow the rescue to occur, Challen and Harris administered general anaesthetics to the boys, ensuring they did not panic during the rescue. This was controversial at the time, but ended up being critical to the boys’ and divers’ survival in the mission. Harris and Challen were the last members of the rescue team out of caves following the rescue. A truly astonishing story of the power of humanity!

Craig has also made notable dives in Cocklebiddy Cave and Pearse Resurgence. In 2010 he made a record-setting 194-metre (636 ft) dive while caving in New Zealand. He was the recipient of the Oztek 2009 Diver of the Year award for his services to caving.

In honour of his presentation, I would like to share five key insights I gained from his talk and Q + A session. Firstly, Craig noted that people will often focus on the success of moments in time rather than on someone’s long term career. Specifically, Craig explained how the cave dive in the rescue was actually one of the easier dives he had completed but it was the set of circumstances surrounding the event that will make Craig remembered for this dive rather than anything else in his life.

Secondly, Craig highlighted how negative the media can be in today’s world. He thought this cave dive story was particularly captivating for audiences all around the world due to the dramatic nature of the event but also how it led to a positive ending. Oftentimes, positive stories of hope and humanity do not make the front page because they are simply not as interesting as shocking and gruesome stories so it was fantastic to be reminded of the positive power of humanity.

The third insight I got was to expect the unexpected! A big challenge for Craig, Richard and the dive team was the lack of alternatives they faced in this situation. Emergency teams from all over the world had already tried to drill holes into the cave system, Elon Musk had tried to use his high-tech submarine (which was useless apparently) and they had even considered waiting out the monsoon season. However, conditions in the cave were worsening every day and so the decision was made to dive the boys out through the highly complex and “gnarly” cave system. This was considered to be the worse case scenario (therefore not expected to be implemented) so Craig’s team had to adopt to this and go with the unexpected plan.

The most controversial and difficult decision of the dive mission was whether or not to anaesthetise the boys. Craig emphasised the importance of consulting all team members in this decision. Unfortunately, one of the stakeholders, the Thai Internal Minister, was unaware of the possibility of anaesthetics being used. In a press conference, this Minister announced that using such a technique was ludicrous and would never be done! Craig stressed the need to keep all stakeholders informed and managed when making critical decisions. The fact that they were anaesthetised was not highlighted to international media at the time, for fear that it could create backlash if the mission failed!

However, all experts were consulted and it was decided that anaesthetics had to be used. The water in the caves had a visibility of 10 centimetres (basically pitch black) and none of the boys nor the coach could speak English. Add to this a complex system of rocky caves and swimming inexperience on the boy’s part, and it is clear to see why anaesthetics were used to preserve the lives of the boys and the divers.

Finally, what surprised and impressed me the most about Craig’s presentation was his humility. He barely spoke about his own heroism and achievements on the mission, but rather focused on the strength of his team members and his respect for them. I was extremely amazed at how humble he was and it reminded me that true “level 5” leaders are the ones that empower their people rather than taking credit themselves (https://www.jimcollins.com/concepts/level-five-leadership.html).

Many questions were asked, much knowledge was gained and overall it was an incredibly interesting presentation for all attendees.

While talking to Craig after the presentation, another attendee asked: “If it happened again, what would you do?”

Craig replied: “Well I’d be excited to do it again!”

A truly remarkable man and a very deserving joint winner of the 2019 Australian of the Year Award. Despite the sad loss of one Thai Navy Seal, Saman Kunan, the mission was a success and a lot of that success is owed to the determination and quick-thinking of Craig and his team of divers.

Conor McLaughlin

Written by

Conor is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Futuristic Skills, a social enterprise that prepares young people for the future of work!

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