By Lenny Bernstein
Thursday, August 26, 2010; PG12
Thirty feet in the air, an Indiana Jones-style rope bridge loomed, strung between two poles, wobbling occasionally in the morning sunshine. Even for 18-year-olds, who are certain they're invulnerable, its irregularly spaced wooden slats screamed caution.
But the instructors had been clear: The best way across was for these incoming college freshmen to launch themselves off the first step and allow speed and momentum to carry them over the gaping spaces to the relative safety of the next tiny, elevated platform.
Some looked nervous. Others hesitated. But no one failed this stretch of the aptly nicknamed "confidence course" at the U.S. Naval Academy as I watched one morning a few weeks ago. Nor did anyone flub the rest of the "tactical assault course," which included climbing a cargo net, crab-walking along a rope line with only another cable to hold on to and riding a zip line to the ground.
"It's all about building confidence," said Midshipman 1st Class Nathaniel Lopez, a senior from Illinois who was helping out at the site. "And if [they] don't do it, they feel like they're letting themselves and their classmates down." (The Navy's rules prohibited me from talking to the plebes themselves, in order to preserve the boot camp atmosphere.)
More than 3 million students will start two- and four-year colleges this fall, and it's a safe bet few will enter as physically and mentally fit as the 1,230 first-year students who recently completed the six-week Plebe Summer in Annapolis.
As the general population of young people becomes more obese, to the point where some experts are concerned about military recruitment, Naval Academy statistics show the plebes' physical fitness, as measured by a series of standard tests, has actually improved slightly in recent years.
This is partly demographics. The Class of 2014 was culled from the largest applicant pool in history, more than 17,400 young men and women, so like all selective colleges these days, the Navy can afford to be even pickier than it was previously. And successful Navy applicants tend to come from a fitness culture: About 93 percent of the freshman class played varsity sports in high school, and 61 percent were captains of those teams.
But then the Navy gets them for six weeks of workouts in the heat and humidity of a Maryland summer. Before the start of the fall term this week, I spent a morning watching 18-year-olds tackle a formidable obstacle course that included a 30-foot rope climb as the last event, kick and punch each other's padded bodies in martial arts, swim, and work their way up a climbing wall.
The day began at 6 a.m. with stretching, a four-mile run and a half-hour of strength exercises, led by Marine Maj. Jay Antonelli, a former wrestler and a brick of a man who at 39 easily outlasted the plebes he was putting through the drills (not to mention me). I ran with 30 companies of plebes as the sun rose over the Severn River. This was the easy run of the week -- for them, not me.
Not every plebe was in great shape. A few struggled on the run, but when they did, upper-class leaders or classmates fell out of formation with them, exhorting, cajoling, cheering and imploring them to finish. That leave-no-person-behind teamwork is as much a critical lesson of Plebe Summer as the fitness regimen.
I did see some plebes who had been sidelined by injuries to ankles, shoulders and feet, but at every activity safety precautions and proper technique were paramount. When they jumped off a high bar, the plebes were told to "grab dirt," a clever way of ensuring that they landed with their knees bent instead of locked. And they were kept well hydrated at all times. When the heat and humidity reach a certain level, outdoor exercises are canceled.
"We expect a lot of these folks," said Cmdr. Kevin J. Klein, the executive officer of the Naval Academy's Physical Education Program. "We invest a lot in these folks. Because they are national assets."
Physical fitness isn't the only goal of Plebe Summer, or perhaps even the primary one, as that wobbly bridge illustrates. As the gangly teens bond and take on increasingly difficult tasks, their instructors can see their confidence grow, sometimes before they're aware of it themselves.
"As warriors, these guys are going to be put into some pretty tough situations," said Craig Holt, an assistant professor of education and assistant gymnastics coach, as he watched a young woman ascend nearly to the top of an indoor climbing wall. "They know how to get past the situation.
"That's what Plebe Summer is all about," he added, "learning to develop some skills that are outside your comfort zone."
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