SEAL Training Academy
Blue skies, sunshine... the ocean and the beach... the dull, inescapable burn of lactic acid in every muscle, the merciless abrasion of sand between a telephone pole and your raw, aching shoulders. Or gagging on water as you hold a plastic hoop in your mouth, carrying a ten-pound brick above the water's surface, and being pummeled by a muscle-bound, sadistic Marine intent on teaching you to survive when quitting or drowning seem to be your only two options.
Sound like a living hell in paradise?
Not if you're a Navy SEAL... or an incredibly privileged civilian adventurer, participating in the SEAL Training Academy created by Odyssey Adventure Racing. These were just some of the more memorable activities we took part in, or should I say took part of us, in this 7-day course. I was there. (A statement of pride, honor and gratitude.) I am an audacious, challenge-loving civilian adventurer; and for the last seven days, I've thrilled to the mad romance of Navy SEAL training, run by Navy SEAL Warrant Officer Don Mann and a cadre of other Navy SEALs, USMC Force Recon, US Special Forces and Navy Divers. The cadre of instructors also included some of the best in scuba diving and skydiving.
As students, you might imagine, we were young studs bent on war games and commando fantasies. The truth, as usual, is fuller and more fascinating. The youngest of us was 15, and he was in fact an incredibly athletic stud bent on becoming a SEAL. Our oldest member was a 48-year-old IBM programmer and ultra-marathoner, with 5 Ironman triathlons and a 100-mile ultramarathon under his belt. There was a 29-year-old female nurse, who is also a novice adventure racer from Chicago; a longhaired, skateboarding college student; a 41-year-old entrepreneur and expert on paraphernalia and memorabilia of famous people; and a high school football player aiming to become a Navy SEAL. Then there was me - a perpetual philosopher and student of psychology and economics, sometime web developer and management consultant, and an athlete recently recovered, at the age of 27, from 8 years of injury. Oh yeah -- I also want to become a Navy SEAL, and it appears I will ship for BUD/S (the first 6 months of Navy SEALs training) about 8 months from now, in March of 2002.
I'll speak for my own experience of the SEAL Training Academy, and I'll speak without humility. Yes, I think I'm tough as nails. I don't hesitate to invite sadists to try to break me, to test my endurance, will and perseverance. I relish the opportunity to overcome any challenge thrown at me. Ultimately, it seems I succeeded in this hard-fought challenge. I believe my fellow adventurers hold a similar outlook about the week.
So I succeeded. I conquered the SEAL Training Academy. But on the way, I was humbled. I was driven hard, and as I stumbled and regained my feet, I found the challenge exhilarating. And I knew that, if it were not for being driven, and stumbling, and then recovering my control and command --- I would not feel this exhilaration.
The instructors knew this too. So they drove us - seemingly without mercy, without compassion, without grace or pity. And we fought back, as humans will do when reality confronts us and our mere survival is unexpectedly challenged. The instructors made us face our destiny; to choose whether we will persevere, recover our spirit and regain our command as the captains of our soul - or whether we will quit, and thereby degrade that most important asset we all control: our reputation with our innermost self. The essence of the experience, for me, came to life on our third day of being tormented by our instructors. We were in the swimming pool and I had swum a half mile in 15 minutes, 31 seconds, which for me was a hard swim. My eyes were burned by chlorine from not wearing goggles. The instructor immediately commanded that I start doing sit-ups on the side of the pool, submerged for most of the sit-up, exhaling from my nose in order to keep water out. A Marine instructor came by occasionally and grabbed my shoulders, jerking me back underwater unexpectedly, so that I did not have the comfort and solace of a fresh breath of air, or more importantly, of my own control over the situation. (How does one perform in situations where control over the immediate, fateful circumstances is taken away from us?)
Soon we were swimming laps again with a ring in our mouths, which prevented us from keeping water out, which was difficult because I also had to breathe through my mouth. Both legs started cramping, first my calves, then my hamstrings, finally my groin. I was in pain, and I tried occasionally to massage my legs, to no avail. So I kept swimming with the cramps. And the Marine would grab me, and I would not have (I thought) sufficient air, and he would drag me under water and hold me down as I struggled onward. This went on, seemingly, for hours.
Eventually we had to tread water in a tight group, all crowded together. We persevered as a team, passing the brick from one to another, helping a teammate to recover the surface after a 'shark' attack (sic. one vicious Marine). The effort was like relaxing and willing oneself upstream to a pool of calm and clarity, where we knew we would survive. Thus we held the stress at bay - we looked with open eyes at the malevolence hurled by the instructors, but it was only a superficial concern. We centered ourselves on an untouchable deep confidence: we would survive, we would persevere. When they tied our hands behind our backs and threw us in during the dreaded "drown proofing" evolution - it was anticlimactic.
I thought I would have to quit - many times, like when I had to jump in the water at one end of the pool, touch the wall, and take off in a long, underwater swim; 50 meters on a single breath. I could have kept swimming until I passed out, trusting I would be revived on the deck beside the pool. But I didn't push on. At about 40 meters, I surfaced. The pain in my soul was worse than anything else I'd endured. You can trust I'll be back in that pool soon, and this time, I won't surface until I've gone my 50 meters - or, for all intents and purposes, died trying.
There was a dog-eared climax to the day, for me. Under the hands of the Recon Marine, with the ring in my mouth, trying to cough out some water in my lungs, with cramps in my legs, and unable to summon the strength to get past my attacker, I flailed. I kicked toward the side of the pool, reached out and grabbed it, a plea for salvation. And I heard the Marine, behind me, "Look at this sissy, grabbing the side of the pool! Oh, look at this. We have a quitter! We have a sissy holding on to the edge!"
This was the point at which I was humbled. I came off the wall and continued swimming, but I knew what I had done. I had physically released control and composure, and reached out in panic, for help. They had broken me. One or two lifetimes later, as I showered in the locker room, I realized that it was for just such moments that this training is so valuable.
The pool evolution was just a sliver of the collective Seal Training Academy. Throughout the week, we hardened our resolve, gelled as a team, and overcame what the instructors dished out to us. We struggled through activities such as the SEAL Physical Readiness Test, the feared log PT, grueling obstacle course competitions and countless assaults on the steep and sandy "Hill of Doom." We planned a mission, and while it was not expertly executed, we learned from our mistakes and further developed as a unit. There was land navigation, confidence training on a towering ropes course, and to top off the week, scuba diving and skydiving.
As part of our scuba certification training, we dove in crystal-clear fresh water on open-circuit diving rigs, visited wrecked boats and descended to a depth of 65 feet. We moved rapidly from ground zero on the learning curve to incredible confidence and teamwork because of the expertise of our head diving instructor, a Navy deep-sea diver with over 2100 scuba dives.
Once again, with skydiving, our team went from ground zero to 14,000 feet and back down, with confidence and truckloads of adrenaline and glee, thanks to another incredible teacher, who with over 7500 jumps and 4 world records, also taught former President George Bush to skydive. We rehearsed over and over the one thing you MUST do after jumping from an airplane: arch, locate and throw to deploy your parachute (in consideration of the ONE certainty, the inescapable fact of skydiving - you WILL continue falling.) And we launched ourselves from a perfectly good airplane at 14,000 feet... and I, for one, remember being overwhelmed by the awesome sense of falling fast through clouds, then seeing dream-like the green patchwork of earth nearly 3 miles below -- and rising fast.
Navy SEAL training is focused on an objective, and it is not to create superior athletes. It is to create men who will not quit when both legs have been shot off, or their buddy is dead, or the surface of the water has gasoline on it, and there's more than 3 miles to salvation. A reasoning mind will assess this situation quickly and assuredly, and determine it is certain death. But human experience has proven otherwise. Death is not certain. And the difference between success and failure, between death and life, is to continue exercising the only control we have - whether we persevere or quit. And those who persevere may actually live, and in the process, succeed in completing their mission. That's what matters.
As we prepare ourselves for the obstacles that life can throw our way, the greatest gift we can receive is experience that confirms our one fundamental power, the ability to persevere in the face of horrific odds. That gift was given to me by a mad recon Marine in a pool at the SEAL Training Academy. I suppose I owe the bastard --a "Thank You." You might say I was slapped hard in the face, but I smiled back and turned the other cheek. Therein I found and renewed the source of my strength... and thus the SEAL Training Academy succeeded, and I with it.