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Tragedy inspires World Cup winner Will Greenwood to trek to the North Pole

Story highlights

Freddie Greenwood lived for just 45 minutes after being born at just 22 weeks

Thanks to a London professor, Greenwood and his wife went on to have three more kids

Rugby World Cup winner trekked to North Pole to raise funds to tackle pre-term births

He overcame hatred of the cold, and fear of polar bears and broken ice

CNN  — 

Rugby World Cup winner Will Greenwood has gone from rock bottom to the top of the world.

He talks of holding his son as though it were yesterday, born 22 weeks early and weighing one pound and one ounce but living and breathing for just 45 minutes.

But 15 years have passed since Freddie was buried in a coffin no bigger than a shoe box, an apple tree planted in his memory.

Greenwood’s first born is never far from his mind, most notably on a recent trek to the North Pole to raise money for the charity Borne, aimed at preventing other couples suffering what he and his wife Caro went through.

“It’s great that something positive has come from such a dark period in our lives,” he said of the expedition in which he has personally raised $475,000 and whose overall pot has already passed $1 million.

Led by renowned Arctic explorer Alan Chambers and with others in his group to have had their lives affected by premature birth: former Special Forces soldier Jason Fox, born two months early, and fellow rugby player Dean Mumm, whose wife Sarah lost two children when they were born prematurely.

“A lot of the group have been affected by pre-term in one way or other,” said Greenwood, who lifted rugby’s most prestigious trophy for England back in 2003. “That was a big motivating factor. If it wasn’t for the money we were raising, I certainly wouldn’t have gone to the North Pole. I hated the cold before and I still hate the cold.”

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Fiji's spectacular sand dune workout
01:30 - Source: CNN

‘A miracle worker’

Greenwood and Mumm’s shared drive was inspired by Professor Mark Johnson, who set up the charity and is an obstetrician in London.

Both Sarah Mumm and Caro Greenwood suffered what is known as an “incompetent cervix,” essentially the cervix widening which caused otherwise healthy babies to be born so early.

Johnson effectively put a stitch into their cervix to hold their respective babies in place. The Mumms now have a boy, Alfie, while the Greenwoods are parents to three children – Archie, 14, 11-year-old Matilda and Rocco, who is eight.

“I owe everything to Mark Johnson – he’s a miracle worker,” added Greenwood. “I will do anything to raise money for it and, if that means climbing up Mount Everest naked next, then so be it. Ok, maybe not that, but you get the point.”

Johnson plans to use the sizeable sums raised to pay for further research into pre-term births.

“My hope is this money goes towards research so that Mark can continue to work his magic and so that other parents don’t have to go through what we went through,” said Greenwood.

“He basically helps mums and dads get their babies as close to full term as possible. We’re going to get a report from Mark on exactly what he’ll do with that money but I think part of it is trialing a new drug.”

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England players including England's captain Harry Mallinder (C) celebrate with the trophy after winning the World Rugby U20 Championship 2016, final match between England and Ireland at the AJ Bell Stadium in Manchester, north west England on June 25, 2016. 

England won the game 45-21. / AFP / JON SUPER        (Photo credit should read JON SUPER/AFP/Getty Images)
Behind the scenes at England Rugby's U-20 camp
01:07 - Source: CNN

‘Freddie was my little engine’

Greenwood has done charity ventures for Borne before – climbing up Mount Kilimanjaro – but a journey to colder climbs to the North Pole was a completely different prospect.

“I remember being in the plane on the way there and all the normal fears go through your mind,” he admitted. “You think of polar bears, blizzards, broken ice, you think ‘what the heck am I doing?’

“And great chunks of ice breaking up below you certainly kicks something off in your body – I don’t know if that’s adrenalin. But I think for the most part, there was a blissful ignorance and I was of the mindset that I was in safe hands with these Special Forces guys.”

There were moments of traversing from one block of ice to the next with gargantuan chasms below, times where he was shouted at to freeze as the ice suddenly shifted.

The whole time, the memory of Freddie was pushing him forward, helped by a card from his wife tucked into his bag in which she said that he would be watching “the best daddy in the world to me”.

“Freddie was my little engine the whole time,” he said.

“It helps in some ways to formulate memories of him. We have the date of his birth, the due date, and there’s the thought he’d be 15 years old now. It’s not in a sad way but it’s a chance to visualize the memories we never had with him.”

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Hot water bottle of urine

Despite the serious nature of the trip, there were moments of levity too: having to wake up in the early hours of the morning to go to the toilet, weeing in a bottle and then using it as a makeshift hot-water bottle to warm up.

Then came the moment where the trip reached its supposed climax. “It’s funny as it’s not like getting to the top of a mountain or rowing across the Atlantic and coming to dry land,” said Greenwood.

“The North Pole is decided by some coordinates on your GPS. The ice moves at 200 meters an hour at that time of year so you’re not there for long. It’s long enough to put up skis, a sign saying the North Pole and then have a cup of tea to celebrate.”

The plan was to be immediately evacuated from the ice after reaching the pole, but the expected Russian helicopter was four hours late after tending to another group.

Has adapting to normal life after a fairly basic existence been easy?

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“I grew up in Blackburn so I’m quite used to basic,” he says. “But I was at boarding school followed by professional sport, so it’s a fairly structured almost military life. This was very similar. A truly great experience. Who knows what’s next?”