Training to the max with the Navy SEALs

When news broke that it was the Navy SEALs who'd pulled off the daring mission that killed Osama bin Laden in early May, U.S. field hockey player Katie Reinprecht was not surprised.

"Not only was I proud, but I could totally understand how they were capable of it," Reinprecht said. "If there was any group that could pull it off, it was them."

Reinprecht knows because she has experienced a taste of the tough-guy world of the SEALs. Over the past nine years, Olympic athletes have taken part in a SEALs special-training program.

The program has expanded to include top college football teams and area high school squads in a variety of sports.

It's the ultimate boot camp. Those who have done it say SEALs training is tougher, psychologically and physically, than any other training they've done.

By taking them to their breaking point, and sometimes beyond, athletes also say it forges togetherness like no other sport-related experience, and helps them perform under pressure.

Of course, there's also a coolness factor that only SEALs can bring, especially lately.

"[The Bin Laden raid] wasn't really mentioned," said J.R. Celski, a short-track speedskating Olympic bronze medalist, whose team trained with the SEALs just weeks after the covert mission in Pakistan. "We all knew in the back of our minds: We're going to train with the guys who took down the most infamous guy in the world. It was exciting."

Olympians know their experience with the SEALs -- an acronym for Sea, Air, Land -- is only a mini version of the real thing.

"If we mess up, we lose a race," said Dan Walsh, a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in rowing. "If they mess up, they die."

One Olympic medalist has taken his SEALs experience to the limit. Months after winning bronze in the 400-meter freestyle in the 2008 Games in Beijing, swimmer Larsen Jensen enlisted in the Navy to become a SEALs candidate.

The program is legendarily rigorous. About three-fourths of the approximately 1,000 men who begin never finish. But Jensen survived the program, which usually lasts at least 18 months, and officially became a Navy SEAL in March.

For most, one day of SEALs training is enough. More than a dozen U.S. national teams, including swimming, short-track speedskating, rowing and water polo, have been led through boot-camp SEALs sessions since 2002.

Jim Bauman, a staff psychologist in '02 with the U.S. Olympic Training Center, said he and colleagues came up with the idea that year during a gathering of Olympic athletes preparing for the 2004 Athens Games at the training center in Chula Vista, Calif. The Naval Special Warfare Center, SEALs headquarters, is nearby in San Diego.

As physical as the SEALs' reputation is, Bauman -- who was in the Army for five years and also a 13-year reserve -- thought tapping into their psyche would really help Olympians get better.

"We'd have great athletes show up and implode when it was time to perform," Bauman said. "I was very impressed how mentally different those guys were."

Lauren Crandall, a U.S. field hockey player, called the team's first SEALs session "shocking."

"As Olympians, we push our limits, mentally and physically. This is a whole other level," she said.

Peter Varellas, 26, a member of the 2008 silver-medal-winning U.S. water polo team, described the team's first experience with the SEALs, held during a team training camp.

It was December 2007. Ocean water temperature: 63 to 65 degrees.

First, they did an obstacle course on the beach. Then a bunch of leg-sapping squats, burpees (squat/push-up/stand up) and other calisthenics.

Fully dressed, the team was ordered into the ocean.

"Obviously, the cold was a slap in the face," said Varellas. "They have you lay down, where it's real shallow, on your back, facing away from the waves so you don't see them. Everyone's linking arms, 24 of us. They lay us there for a while, then told us to stand up.

"You're supposed to stand up all together. If someone is a little slow, everyone goes back down [into the water]."

That theme -- everyone together, or everyone does extra -- repeated itself over the course of 3½ hours.

"It was about all we could handle," Varellas said.

The obstacle course included climbing a 40-foot cargo net and scaling a 20-foot wall. There's also a drill called log PT, with seven athletes, shoulder to shoulder, working as a team to keep a thick log level during various exercises, like squats, lunges, sit-ups and pushing it overhead. They do sprints with the log, holding it at chest height.

If one person falters, the log begins to tip. Teamwork is the whole point.

Then there's the dreaded call to "Get wet and sandy!" -- which is repeated multiple times. Known as "sugar cookies" in SEAL-speak, this involves running over the dunes, dunking into the water, then rolling in the sand before continuing. Athletes wear rucksacks filled with 40 pounds of sand while running 1 ½ miles on the beach. They run some more, up and over sand dunes, holding rubber boats overhead. They experience head and neck pain, and also doubt.

"There's always a point [where you think], 'How much longer, why are we doing this?'" said Crandall, 26, whose U.S. field hockey team is bucking a history of usually failing to qualify for the Olympics. In 2008, the team qualified but finished eighth among 12 teams. The squad is currently ranked 13th.

Crandall came to realize that even the doubt has a purpose.

"If I have a teammate on the team who's saying, 'I signed up to play field hockey, not to do this,' I don't like to have them as a teammate. It kind of weeds people out, shows them this is the commitment we want."

This kind of civilian workout program isn't offered to the general public, like trendy "boot camps" that have become popular at neighborhood fitness clubs.

"We don't advertise a lot," said Rob Stella, the SEALs' chief special warfare operator.

Only elite athletes are eligible, said Stella. Female athletes take part, though women are prohibited by law from being Navy SEALs or taking part in any special operations force.

Yelling at a teammate means certain extra work. Don't dare complain, or even let your displeasure show.

Once during log PT, "My face must have been like, 'This is terrible,'" Reinprecht said.

Negativity can be poison to a team. The drill leaders, SEALs themselves, noticed.

"What do you think this is, Team Katie?" she remembers one of them yelling.

"They just called you out on it," she said. "If you stopped, a lot of times they'd make us all stop and all do push-ups. We quickly learned to keep our comments to ourselves."

Stella said that on some occasions, national team coaches have used the training to help them make final squad cuts. How a team member reacts to the SEALs can provide clues to how he or she will respond to pressure or a bad call.

"It's something that coaches and sports psychologists use to their advantage," Stella said.

Said U.S. field hockey coach Lee Bodimeade, "If you're whining, you're not contributing to the group, not going to help us when we're 1-all to Argentina and it's 105 degrees."

The idea, said Stella, is to learn how to succeed through failure.

"Whether you're Larsen Jensen and an outstanding swimmer, or you're someone who can run forever ... we're going to put pressure on you and make you fail at what you're good at," Stella said.

How an athlete responds to that failure is key.

"Some of the biggest and toughest guys you see, they get under a little bit of pressure and they quit," Stella said. "They don't understand failure. As far as the SEALs go, we can't afford to have that happen on the battlefield."

Varellas admits that what the team did with the SEALs was not directly related to its water polo training. But he is certain it played a role in the team winning Olympic silver in 2008.

The U.S. hadn't won a water polo medal since 1988. Before Beijing, its biggest challenge was creating the confidence that it could compete with the world's best again.

"We were building in a belief we could succeed," Varellas said, "which was exactly what we did with the SEALs."

That day on the beach became something of a blueprint for their next year.

"You don't win. There are no victories early on," Varellas said. "Everything's wrong, and you have to go back in the water. ... But slowly toward the end of that day, we started having small successes that ultimately bring you closer together and bring a sense of accomplishment."

But could the team do it on the big stage?

When it came time for the Olympics, the U.S. water polo team outplayed its No. 9 world ranking to reach the final. In the gold-medal match, the Americans faced Hungary, winner of the two previous Olympic titles. The score was tied going into the fourth quarter before the U.S. lost.

"I think for sure it helped develop some of the themes that got us to where we were," said Varellas. "Trusting each other ... relying on each other."

Varellas said the team will bring its SEALs experience, and its experience from that Olympic tournament, to London in 2012.

"We played with those guys," Varellas said. "We know we can again."