By Vicki Michaelis, USA TODAY
COLORADO SPRINGS - The session starts genially enough, with a video presentation, some talk about becoming a Navy SEAL and a quick overview of the separating-men-from-boys "Hell Week" part of SEALs training.
Then the SEALs warn their audience, comprised mostly of U.S. sailing team members: "We're going to re-set your baseline today."
Within hours, some athletes are on the edge of hypothermia, some are crying, others are cursing like, well, sailors, and all are fully immersed in misery.
At the end of their four-hour "Hell Afternoon," filled with pushups, runs, drenchings in a freezing lake, waiting for orders in a bracing wind, rolling in dirt, and countless group hoists and carries of 200-plus-pound logs, the sailors are asked what they've learned.
"Never give up," says one.
"Dirt is warm," says another.
"We push in our training," says Zach Railey, a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in sailing, "but this was just a totally different type of physical and mental exhaustion."
The London Summer Olympics are nearly three months from now with the opening ceremony July 27. The training several U.S. Olympians have done with the SEALs - 10 U.S. teams in Olympic sports have been through at least one session in recent years - is an arduous, indelible part of their preparation.
"To be honest, after I did it I wanted to mount up and go and try to become a SEAL," said Olympic gold medalist Garrett Weber-Gale, who went through the training with Michael Phelps and other swimmers in 2009. "I thought about it for about a year. And thought maybe after I was done swimming I would want to do that. I guess what I took away from that was the human body can always achieve more than we believe. And that's controlled purely by our minds."
The fatigue is so consuming the SEALs advise them at certain points to focus only on their next step - to ignore the discomfort of the elements, the aches shooting through their muscles, the doubts plaguing their minds, and to simply put one foot in front of the other.
"You can't buy what they're going to teach them in four hours," says Wendy Borlabi, a sport psychologist with the U.S. Olympic Committee, who adds the training is especially beneficial to athletes who compete in individual sports.
"They're learning what they're doing is bigger than themselves," Borlabi says. "It's different than when they're training for the Olympics, which is all centered on them.
"The growth, I think, is astronomical."
The women's field hockey players credit their SEALs experience last fall for helping push them to a seminal victory against top-ranked Argentina weeks later at the Pan Am Games.
"I just remember in that Argentina game looking at my teammates, and it was clear we were getting tired, but I knew there was no way they were giving up," midfielder Katie Reinprecht says of the USA's first win against Argentina since 1987, a victory that qualified the U.S. women for London. "I think we learned that with the SEALs."
Lee Bodimeade, USA Field Hockey's head women's coach, likes the SEALs sessions so much, he's having his team go through more training this Thursday.
"The comment the Navy SEALs have made to us is no matter how tough a day you're having, it will never be as tough as the day you had with the Navy SEALs," Bodimeade says.
SEALs training made recent headlines when golf instructor Hank Haney asserted in his book Tiger Woods trained several times in 2006 and 2007 with the SEALs, possibly sustaining a knee injury during an exercise.
Woods has not confirmed the account. Woods' agent, Mark Steinberg, released a statement saying Haney's "stories about Tiger's injuries are simply not true."
A statement from the U.S. Navy says Woods "visited the Naval Special Warfare Command (in Coronado, Calif.) on several occasions in 2006." He toured the facilities and "was provided the opportunity to learn about and shoot a few weapons," the statement said.
The SEALs training with the U.S. sailing team begins with a mile run from the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to a local park. The temperature is in the 40s, with winds of about 50 mph.
After the sailors do three sets of 15 pushups, the two SEALs running the session, who asked to remain anonymous for this story because they are active-duty, order them to get wet, head to toe, in a nearby lake.
When the sailors return, the SEALs find some without wet hair. Those athletes are singled out and made to the face the others, who then have to do more pushups.
A tone of accountability, common goals and common suffering is set. More visits to the lake follow, along with pushups, lunges, squats, and repeated lifts and carries of the dreaded logs.
If told beforehand about the demands of the training, most athletes "probably would have been out, right out of the blocks," one of the SEALs says.
As it is, only 18 of the 41 athletes who begin the session are still in it at the end, four hours later.
"What was the hardest part? Getting over being cold," finisher Amanda Clark, a 2008 and 2012 Olympian, says. "When the shivers started to take over and somebody next to you is saying that it's their time to step out, just trying to calm the body back down, know that there's probably a chance you're going back in the water - and that it's going to end when they say it's going to end."
At the London Games, the sailors will face widely varying conditions at the Olympic venue in Weymouth, England.
"Maybe it will be a 50-degree weather day and blowing 40 knots and I'll think it's cold," says Anna Tunnicliffe, who in 2008 completed a half Ironman just weeks after winning Olympic gold, but who dropped out of the SEALs session after the first hour. "And then I'll be like, no, it's not cold. It was cold in Colorado that day we went swimming and stood out in shorts and a T-shirt."
All are relieved when the day is done. Those who made it to the end carry a new sense of accomplishment.
"Just when you think you can't go any further, if your mind tells you that you can, then you just continue to go further," says Debbie Capozzi, the only member of Tunnicliffe's reigning world-champion crew to finish the session.
Inspired by the best
Little do they know another wakeup call is coming.
The next morning, just before 6 a.m., the SEALs enter the hallways of the dorm where the sailors are sleeping, bullhorns in hand, sirens sounding.
"U.S. sailing team!" they shout. "Get up! We're not done yet! You didn't think we came out for just one day, did you?"
As the sailors line up in a courtyard, a SEAL says, "You guys are probably asking yourselves right now, 'Why do my coaches hate me?' "
They run back to the park. They do pushups, sprints, lunges and jumping jacks. The SEALs order them to do two extra sets of 20 pushups for a team member that didn't join them.
When another teammate arrives more than half an hour late, they must do 30 more pushups, and the latecomer gets verbally lashed for his attire.
"I'm glad you dressed for the occasion," one of the SEALs says to him. "You look pretty sharp today. Those corduroys and deck shoes are going to help you out."
The workout ends with groups of sailors carrying the logs a mile around the lake. The fastest crew, made up of the tallest athletes, finishes in 25 minutes. The second-fastest crew, made up of the shortest, whom the SEALs have nicknamed "The Smurfs," finish second.
"These guys are extremely motivated," Kenneth Andreasen, U.S. Sailing's high performance director and head coach, says of his sailors. "Having the Navy SEALs here is amazing. They have the training, the background, and (the athletes) have respect for them.
"The biggest part of this is the mental side of it - that they don't quit, that they keep on going. That's the biggest lesson."
When asked whether these sessions are at all similar to actual SEALs training, one of the SEALs says, "It's really not that close a comparison."
The SEALs do the sessions, says Navy public affairs specialist Scott Williams, to expose high-level athletes to the SEALs "as a potential career choice." The SEALs also conduct training for high school and college teams.
One Olympian, swimmer Larsen Jensen, who won silver at the 2004 Games in the 1,500-meter freestyle and 400-meter bronze in 2008, completed SEALs training last year and now is an active-duty SEAL. He was not available for comment.
He did not go through a SEALs session during his Olympic preparation, according to U.S. Swimming.
One of the SEALs who worked with the sailors says he never has watched sailing, "but I'm actually going to make sure I tune in" to the competition in London.
"I think they take pride in trying to train us to be the best that we can be," U.S. women's field hockey player Katelyn Falgowski says, "and we absolutely get huge inspiration just being with them because they are the best that there is, and that's what we aspire to be in our sport."
Contributing: Erik Brady