Throughout most of my two and a half years going through Naval Special Warfare selection training, swimming was my Achilles heel. My intense dislike for it was equaled only by my monumental lack of talent at it.
That was all part of the plan, really. A challenge was my goal and throwing myself into something that I was inherently bad at seemed like a good way to find that. I didn’t even learn how to swim until boot camp. I’d never be fully prepared for this anyway, and if I didn’t do it now, I probably never would.
During the first week of boot camp, the same day as the basic swim test, a series of four videos are shown about each of the special programs available to volunteers. Along with a handful of others, I raised my hand, put my name on a list and volunteered for selection.
Shortly thereafter I sat shivering on a small blue tile in a muggy, chlorine-scented locker room amongst rows of other candidates. My arms were wrapped around my knees, pulling them to my chest. I wasn’t cold. I was shaking because the next six years of my life depended on my ability to pass this test.
On command, we filed out of the room, holding up either one finger or two fingers to designate which pool we were to line up in front of.
Two or three laps later, choking and sputtering, I felt a hand tap me on the shoulder as I reached the wall to turn around. An instructor was standing over me.
“Out of the water. You’re not gonna make it. You’ve still got some time to catch stroke development; so if you want to continue, head to that pool down there and pay attention.”
Stroke development was being led by an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Chief named Ferriss. He spoke calmly but loudly, as if already exasperated with us.
“Hold your hand up over your head like this. Now bend it like this, and pull your arm down like this. There; you just learned half of the side stroke. I can teach combat sidestroke to a monkey in thirty minutes. Now enter the water.”
I listened as if my life depended on it. In a way, it did.
On my third and final attempt at the screen test, I passed the swim by less than ten seconds. I felt a degree of triumph lining up for the next portion of the test with the other five students of the twenty-five or so who had started. Stopping for any reason during the test would result in automatic failure, and I was so fatigued from the swim that I spent a good portion of the timed run afterwards in a sideways gait in order to puke while moving. Two of us passed the test.
Afterwards I was elated and proud to tell my Dad about it. As the words left my mouth that excitement was marginalized by the prospect of what was to come. He asked what was next. I paused to think about it. “Well, now I can start the training for Special Programs. Kind of.”
“Are you ready?”
“I have to be.”
I was practicing swimming each day with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal candidate named Mitchell. We occasionally talked about our days which were spent at A School with the regular Navy people. A personality type we constantly encountered was the “I-was-gonna.” The I-was-gonnas were people who would find out that you were in the Special Programs pipeline and feel obligated to tell you about their similar aspirations, which always began with the words “I was gonna” and ended with an excuse.
“I was gonna do that too, but I want to spend some time in the fleet first learning how the Navy works.”
“I was gonna sign up for that, but I have this thing with my knee and I don’t know if they’d let me in.”
The I-was-gonnas never did. Their fear to take the first step, to take that risk, prevented them from ever knowing if they could have made it.
After passing the screen test I began attending the Special Programs workouts, which required that I get up at 3:00 a.m. in order to make the walk to the gym on the other side of base. These workouts were mandatory for SEAL and SWCC candidates until we left for the actual training in Coronado, California. For me, this wouldn’t be for another year and a half.
Most of the time, these workouts were in the gym or around the base, either on long runs or at a strip of beach where we would do calisthenics and try to avoid low-crawling through dead fish. This was with the exception of Wednesday, which was pool day.
One of the first pool day workouts sticks in my memory. It was winter in Chicago and the doors outside had been opened. The cold outside air had rushed in and mixed with the warm humidity inside, creating a thick fog.
Above the fog, in a lifeguard chair, was Instructor Cassidy, an experienced SEAL instructor. At this point, the farthest I had swum non-stop in my life was 1000 meters. I had only passed the screen test, with its 500 meter swim, a few weeks prior.
“Warm up! 2000 meter sidestroke! First group, enter the water! Bust ‘em!”
I briefly tried to convince myself that I had heard wrong, or that he was joking.
A lot of thoughts go through your head as you’re stepping into something that you really dread. My mind scanned through possibilities, weighing the pros and cons of somehow breaking my leg in the few steps it would take me to get to the water and silently hoping that another candidate would have a violent seizure and distract the instructor for a while.
Swimming is a tutorial in efficiency. Think about what it feels like to try to run through chest deep water while fish flit effortlessly past your feet. The brilliantly written book Total Immersion explains the science behind this quite well. Poor swimming technique stems from poor body positioning which increases the size of the “hole” ones body must pass through in the water. A law of hydrodynamics states that drag increases by the square of the distance that water travels to move past a body. This means that twice the distance traveled by the water equals four times the drag.
Unless technique and body positioning improves, the only way to move faster through the water is to just exert more force doing the same motion. The fatal flaw to this strategy comes down to another physics law: Force equals mass multiplied by acceleration (F = M x A). What this means is that to double force by simply moving an object twice as fast results in eight times the energy expenditure.
So a poor swimmer is already working against exponentially more drag. Trying to move faster by doubling the speed of his stroke with the same technique would cube the amount of energy he must produce. Just a ten percent increase in speed requires a 33 percent increase in power output.
At Cassidy’s call of “Bust ‘em!” we pushed off the wall and started swimming. The next group entered the water and followed momentarily. The person behind me soon passed me. It was impossible to swim smoothly with the number of people fighting to pass each other in the narrow lanes, and the water was a chaotic tangle of kicks and collisions. I fell to the back of the pack.
The disparity between the energy my awful technique required to finish the swim compared to the guys with the lowest-drag, most efficient strokes was drastically apparent. When the swim was over, I dragged myself out of the water, my chest heaving with the effort required to support and move my suddenly cumbersome and lactic acid riddled body. The guys who were first out of the water were relaxed, quietly standing at attention and occasionally cracking jokes with each other whenever Cassidy’s attention was diverted to the other side of the building. I could barely stand.
Instructor Cassidy explained the next portion of the workout. We were to enter the water one at a time at the far end of the pool and sprint freestyle to the end, then duck under the lap lane rope and sprint back, repeating the process until we had swam every lane. For each time we were passed, we were to get out and do ten pushups before continuing the next lap.
My proficiency at freestyle was worse than sidestroke. To say that I could even swim it at all would have been optimistic. I was passed constantly and sucked in a breath of water as my goggles were kicked off my face. Under the fog, the water resembled a rugby scrum more than a swim. I could barely think clearly enough to count the pushups, and instead just pushed them out until my arms and chest gave out then dropped back into the water.
I was the last one to exit the pool, and standing upright required a concerted mental effort. Somebody did something to annoy Instructor Cassidy and we were punished with a barrage of pushups, flutter kicks and eight-counts. A trainee stopped doing eight-counts to throw up in the pool drain.
An incensed Cassidy bellowed from the chair, “You don’t want to put out? You don’t think you need to fucking be here? Do you people have any idea what is getting ready for you? First man, enter the water! Bust ‘em!”
My only thought as I swam was that each stroke brought me closer to being done and collapsing peacefully on the floor of my room to bask in the splendor of unlimited oxygen. There was no way this could continue much longer. Cassidy was in full form, hunting for signs of weakness and roaring threats at anyone who drew his attention.
I finished again and got out of the pool, crawling before bringing myself to my feet at the back of the pack. It felt like my head was packed in cotton. My vision was hazy; I was looking around in slow motion, and all I could really hear was the blood pounding in my ears. I didn’t catch much of what Cassidy had been saying to the trainees as they formed up, but I figured it was probably the final words before the workout ended.
“Do it again! First man, enter the water! Bust ‘em!”
By the middle of this series I could no longer swim with continuous effort. It was more a sequence of fitful strokes punctuated by choking and sinking. Halfway down the last lap I blinked and reopened my eyes to find myself drifting a few feet under the water. I snapped back into consciousness and kicked to the surface, coughing up more acrid chlorine, and toiled my way to the end of the lane.
I was too weak to lift myself out of the pool and two guys stepped out of line to grab me by the wrists and pull me out. I slid on my belly like a beached orca, pulled my knees under myself and finally got up and staggered to the back of the line. If we had to swim again I would pass out in the water.
“Get out of here.”
We were done and started filing out of the pool back into the gym. Instructor Cassidy stopped me as I walked past.
“You. You need to pick it up. You’re way behind the power curve.”
I tried to slow my breathing enough to speak intelligibly, “Hoo Ya, Instructor Cassidy… I just learned to swim… I’ll get better.”
After finishing A School, I spent six months working for the Dive Motivators who administer the screening tests and Special Programs workouts. Along with the other SCRUFTs (Screened Candidate Reported and Undergoing Physical Training, pronounced “Scruff”) I would do the 3 a.m. workout, then eat breakfast, oversee the screen test for new candidates, work out again with another group of Special Programs guys, do paperwork for new candidates then do another workout which was more commonly referred to as a beatdown. This would end around lunch time and before we went home for the day we would endure anywhere from one to four more hours of physical torment at the hands of the Dive Motivator Instructors.
At some point I stopped caring about the beatdowns. I remember one day; jumping up and down knocking out 100 eight count bodybuilders, a complicated calisthenic movement combining a pushup with a squat jump along with several more movements in the middle. I was leading the group, calling out the number of reps loudly enough for the instructors to hear from their offices, when it occurred to me that it was no longer of any consequence whether I did ten of them, or hundreds, as long as I wasn’t in the water.
My swimming improved, although it was still a major weakness. What I lacked in technical skill I made up for with sheer endurance. An Instructor told me that my swimming would improve if my heart was stronger. He told me to work out on an elliptical and keep my heart rate above 170 for twenty minutes.
Using the curious logic inherent to a nineteen-year-old male brain, I decided to improve on his advice, so two days per week I would spend 30 minutes on an elliptical, never letting my heart rate drop below 180 beats per minute. After several months, I extended it to 45 minutes.
I could never free myself from my mental hang-up with loathing the water, and continued to dread every day in the pool. The stamina I had built just meant that I could put even more effort into swimming poorly.
The days and months ticked by. I went on to Coronado, California, went through an indoctrination phase shared with BUD/S students, and then went on to SWCC’s selection phase, known as Basic Crewman Training (BCT). It had been almost a year and a half since briefly blacking out in the water during Cassidy’s workout.
I was two weeks away from graduating SWCC Class 47’s BCT. Most of the original fifty who started had quit. Sixteen remained.
My swim buddy and I had come in at 46:02 on a timed swim; 1,000 meters in open water with full cammies and boots. The instructors called me and my swim buddy Doug over. The time limit for the swim was 45 minutes. We had failed, were to be scheduled for a disciplinary review board, and would most likely be dropped from training.
At the board, I faced the officer at the head of the table and he eventually asked if I thought I could do better on the swim if given another chance that day.
I tried with only limited success to restrain emotion and choked back tears as I thought back over the months and years of struggling in the pool, of the 3:00 a.m. beatdowns, of showing up every day when so many others had quit.
“I’ll try sir, but… I put everything I had into it last time… so, I don’t know.”
We were not dropped from training. The Lieutenant liked me, apparently because I had been honest. We were to be placed into the BUD/S Brownshirt Rollback program, then class back up with the next SWCC class, four months later.
We were privileged to be accepted into the Brownshirts. It’s normally only open to guys in SEAL training (BUD/S) who are rolled after they have passed Hell Week. My swim buddy and I were the first SWCC students permitted into the program.
The worst part of being in the Brownshirts was that eventually you would have to watch your former class graduate and know that you are stuck in limbo while they put a pin on their chest and go to a team. There is a saying that the worst day of BUD/S is the day that your old class graduates.
The upside to being a Brownshirt was that we had no real training obligations other than getting stronger and faster at running and swimming. You destroyed yourself for about five straight hours each day and that was it. No watches to stand, no tests, no bullshit.
At the time, though, it didn’t feel to me like a relief. I now faced an even more daunting challenge just to get back to where I had started.
As a Brownshirt, you do whatever timed evolution any of the three phases is doing that day, plus two or three more workouts created by the Instructors in charge of the Brownshirt Program. I remember looking at our schedule my first week there. It didn’t seem possible.
Monday might be a four mile timed run in soft sand, then at least two miles of mostly interval sprints in the pool, then a weight-based strength workout followed by a session of rope climbs, dips and pullups. All of it was back to back. Tuesday would be a two-mile ocean swim, a run to the other side of base, then a workout of plyometrics, sprints, buddy-drags and exercises with 75 pound kettlebells. To make things extra special we all carried rucksacks with us almost everywhere with sandbags in them. The sandbags had to weigh at least thirty-five pounds. Applying the same logic I had to my heart rate while working out on the elliptical, I decided that a heavier sandbag would make me stronger. Mine weighed 58 pounds.
One of the most common workouts in the pool was to swim ten 100-meter interval sprints. It was based on two-minute intervals. This meant that if you swam the 100 in 1:45, you would get fifteen seconds rest before you started for the next hundred. If you swam slower, you got less rest, and left at the same time.
The fastest guys swam it in about 1:35 and had plenty of rest time. It was still a tough workout for them. My first lap, the first time I did it, I swam it in 1:58. Two seconds rest. Next lap, I was more fatigued. I came in at 2:00 flat. No breathing, just turn and sprint back. The entire set, I sprinted every lap and hit the wall just as everyone else was leaving for the next lap. It was a 1000 meter sprint. The instructor in charge of the evolution came over to me afterwards and said that the only real good thing he could say was that I never quit swimming or putting out. The technique would come.
With any of these workouts, one could usually tell that it was about two thirds done because people would start puking or passing out from the exertion. This was expected. If someone were caught holding back, or even suspected of it, relentless torture on behalf of the instructors would result.
I had a panicked, hunted feeling the first few weeks I was there. In order to earn my place I had to destroy myself every day at each of the workouts. I couldn’t relax or coast through anything. But I was barely hanging on. I was a terrible swimmer, and the two miles per day in the water always crushed me. Everything I did was focused on recovering, getting stronger and faster, and stacking the deck as much as possible in my favor. I slept, ate and generally lived for the sole purpose of making it through the next day and getting a tiny step closer to the final goal. I was haunted by the thought that if everything wasn’t dialed in right I may not make it. If I didn’t perform well, I was done. Gone, like everyone else.
Over the first month or two there something changed. I had gotten some advice from a fresh BUD/S graduate living next door to me during my first few weeks in Coronado. He was packing his stuff to leave when I moved in and as he sorted through his gear, tossing me things I may need during the next few months, he talked about what he had learned during his past six months of training.
“The most important thing here is that it doesn’t matter. Nothing really matters. All the guys who stress themselves out and scream that everything is serious and really important and try to order everyone around usually go away. The evolutions are all scheduled, they have a set start and stop time, and the only objective is that you keep going. Don’t be the first guy and don’t be the last guy. Stay in the middle, unnoticed.”
He said he probably did more damage to himself partying on the weekends than he did during the training. There were always some guys who tried to rest all weekend to prepare for the next week, but it was futile. A lot of those guys eventually broke down and went away.
What I finally realized was that even if I was dehydrated, even if I was sleep-deprived, hung over or sore, I was still going to do the workout and that somehow I would make it through. Fresh, well rested, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, the workouts would hurt. Exhausted and aching, with a two-sizes-too-large wetsuit, the workouts would hurt. It doesn’t matter. It would pass either way.
Eventually I was able to relax, knowing that whatever the next day brought, I would handle it. This was a new level of freedom for me. I finally felt like I was unbreakable. Not because it didn’t hurt anymore or I could breeze through the workouts, but because I had hit bottom so many times that I knew that I would be able to keep going anyway.
Our first day, the Brownshirt instructors had given us numerous valuable points in our technique that would make us faster and more efficient in the water. It was the first time I had gotten advice that didn’t boil down to “Just work harder.” It was encouraging, and it was working astonishingly well.
I was working my way across the lap lanes at the pool, which were divided according to swimming ability. All the way to the left were the slowest guys and as you went to the right the swimmers were increasingly fast. Naturally, I started at the furthest lane to the left, but within a few weeks was progressing through towards the right.
Doug progressed even faster than me in the water. Soon, he was one of the fastest swimmers in BUD/S and we were no longer paired as swim buddies because I couldn’t keep up with him.
After six weeks, Chief Nave, the lead Instructor for the Brownshirts, made me redo the 1,000 meter swim that Doug and I had failed. I passed by over ten minutes. I was free. The one thing that could have stopped me was conquerable.
Months later, I did the same swim again in my second SWCC class. The instructors had us swim solo, with no swim buddy, which was an odd break from the standard policy. Although I was somehow still nervous about it, I passed with a faster time than I had swum in the Brownshirts.
SWCC 47 had been a pilot class, the first in a new curriculum, and the time limits placed on some of the evolutions were arbitrary. For Class 48, the time limit for the swim was fifty minutes, five longer than the class before. Doug and I had only failed the first time by one minute.
Eight months later the CO of the base placed a pin on my chest at the graduation ceremony.
Our perception of whether and how much things hurt us is largely self-controlled. We fear the unknown. We fear how bad it can get, without ever really understanding where that limit is or how it will affect us when it comes.
Do you know what it feels like to suffer? What kind of person will you become if you hit bottom? What part of you is still there when you’ve got nothing left?
For those two years until I finished the Brownshirts and went on to the final phase of SWCC selection training, I was never quite ready for a swim. It was never a comfortable experience. I was fortunate in a way because I was in an environment in which it didn’t matter whether I was ready or whether I felt like doing it. I had no choice.
A 500-meter row on a Concept 2 is just plain devastating if you do it right, but it’s one of the best conditioning workouts you can do. It’s always there, but somehow most of us can create numerous reasons why the best time to do it is not right now.
Disregarding nutritoin and improvising with sub-par food is damaging to ones health and physique. We know the importance of having food prep strategies and making quality nutrition a part of our lifestyle. Most people are at least dimly aware that the very act of cooking and sharing meals with friends and family is one of the most important aspects of a healthy, rewarding life, yet we often put these things off because they seem to be a little too demanding on our time, and we don’t want to screw up a meal in front of everyone. You can’t go wrong ordering out, right?
The beautiful girl walks up, pauses for a moment and continues past. If you just had some time you could probably drop the ideal opening line, just the right thing to say, but you’re not completely confident of what to say, so you opt for nothing. Three seconds later that opportunity is gone, and you’ll never know what could have been.
It comes down to the question of “Can I rely on myself?” Fearing the answer is what keeps most people in the realm of “I was gonna…”
Think of something that is in your way, a painful step on the path to achieving something that you really want or making yourself better in some way. It’s going to be uncomfortable, and you could find a way to eventually be better prepared if the opportunity presented itself again. You’re probably planning to do it sometime in the abstract future, when conditions are perfect.
Now, what would happen if you stopped lying to yourself by saying “I’ll start Monday?” Those Mondays always come and go, along with one more rationalization. What if you just do it right now? Regardless of the outcome, you’ll be among the few whose place, as Theodore Rooseveltsaid, “…shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
What you very well may learn is that even in the middle of the maelstrom, once you’ve hit bottom, you’ll find a way to keep going no matter how miserable it is. The pain is irrelevant. There is always a way through and you will be capable of finding it. The only failure is to quit trying.