Civilians gather before dawn to grunt, sweat and train like SEALs

An hour or so before sunrise, at the foot of the Washington Monument, a strange-looking ritual is underway. A group of men and women take turns hoisting one another in the frigid morning air. They yank on a rope or scuttle across the cold, wet ground using their hands and feet. The chatter is minimal. When they speak at all, it is at the prompting of a man in a dark sweatshirt.

“Which team is going to win?” he asks one day last week.

“We are!”

“Are you allowed to get hurt?” he asks.

“No!”

The man is John McGuire, a 10-year Navy SEAL veteran, and the men and women, ranging in age from 22 to 54, are here for a taste of the discipline that defines the elite force.

The teamwork-based regime McGuire puts them through is inspired by the Basic Underwater Demolition training that is a prerequisite for acceptance into the SEALs. Typically, only about 20 of the 200 men who start BUDS graduate. And at first, McGuire hewed a little too closely to the real thing. His first class 13 years ago in Richmond attracted five students — none of whom came back.

“I had to lower it down a bit for civilians,” he says.

For instance, instead of barking insults, as BUDS instructors are known to do, McGuire leads a set of flutter kicks with a gentle sing-songy ditty: “Can you feel that? Just a little bit. Look at the trees. Count all the leaves. Can you feel the breeze?”

He now has 45 instructors who help him teach classes in Richmond, Charlottesville and the District. His classes in Richmond sometimes swell to 200 people. Beginners pay $300 for a two-week basic training course. Those who survive and wish to continue pay $100 a month thereafter.

McGuire’s clients include police officers, firefighters and FBI agents. Most of them, though, hail from lower-adrenaline occupations, such as financial analyst, scientist and teacher.

Kim Prendergast, 44, is a comptroller for the Interior Department who joined a year ago because, she says, “I needed something to push me.” Two of her colleagues also attend. McGuire says he didn’t expect his military-style calisthenics to attract women. Now, he estimates, they make up about 52 percent of his clients. Flutter kicks, bear crawling, shouting “hooyah” in unison, are no longer the exclusive domain of men who rappel down mountain faces or assassinate terrorists. Prendergast says her co-workers refer to it as “the amazon workout.”

In practice, the work is team-focused. Whoever finishes a run first, for example, must fall back and join the stragglers, until everyone is done.

Toward the end of the class, the group splits into two teams for a bout of tug-of-war. They take position parallel to the monument, with one team pulling south, and the other pulling north. The first round ends badly for the South. Afterward, McGuire huddles with them to talk strategy. “If you’re not winning, at least make them work for it,” he says, demonstrating how to position their body weight.

McGuire frequently gives such pep talks, such as the one he gave Nov. 30 to the Virginia Commonwealth University men’s basketball team before it played South Florida. VCU lost the last time the two teams played. But after McGuire’s talk, VCU prevailed, 69-46. The tug-of-war combatants at the losing end of the rope have similar results. The South spends much of the second round with teeth gritted and heels dug in, to no avail. Then, just when it seems as if it is all over, the rope starts to give a little. Fatigue sets in at the other end. And they yank their way to victory.

 
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