Taking the big leap Trepidation: The thought of taking the mandatory 33-foot jump into a Naval Academy pool has terrified some midshipmen.

December 04, 1995|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Three years ago, Amanda Chasteen was poised at the top of her Naval Academy class, respected by her peers, and had a good shot at earning her wings at an elite Navy flight school.

All she had to do was make the mandatory jump off the 33-foot dive platform into the pool at Lejeune Hall. She was terrified.

"I went up there, walked to the end and looked down," Ms. Chasteen said. "I thought there was no way I was going to do this."

Ms. Chasteen, who finally jumped after pacing on the platform for two hours, was part of the 1 percent of the 4,000 midshipmen each year who -- unnerved by the height -- don't make the jump during sophomore swim class at the Annapolis academy.

"I don't know what it was about the 10-meter. I'm not afraid of heights," said Ms. Chasteen, who is now an ensign attending flight school in Pensacola, Fla. "I had jumped from the other ones, and I was shocked when I walked to the edge of the 10-meter and couldn't do it. But when I finally did it, it was over in a second, and I wondered why I had fussed."

Although most midshipmen eventually make the jump, about one each year leaves the academy in part because he or she can't do it.

"To me, graduation was a lot more important," Ms. Chasteen said. "It just wasn't worth not jumping."

This year swim instructors and coaches coddled, coaxed and sometimes bribed 10 midshipmen for about six weeks before all but one finally jumped.

"We try not to make it like they are walking the plank," said head swim Coach Joe Suriano. "Some of the Mids look at it like a gut check. But it's really a confidence builder."

The idea behind the jumps, which are combined with a 50-meter underwater and 400-meter swim, is to give the midshipmen a feel for what it is like to abandon ship and swim away from fire or wreckage, he said.

The typical fear, he said, is of belly-flopping into the water. A person of average weight hits the water at 30 mph. A bad landing leaves painful welts and makes a loud smacking noise that bounces off the walls. To avoid that, the midshipmen are told to jump in a straight, stiff position with arms crossed over chest and legs crossed at the ankle.

"You don't want to just walk off the tower," Coach Suriano said. "You'll end up leaning forward too much. You should give yourself a little upward push, a little hop off the edge of the board."

From the top of the 10-meter platform, one has a bird's-eye view of the pool and tourists strolling a hallway. The ceil-ing is about 15 feet from the platform, and the 18-foot dive well looks small and shallow from that height.

"I worried about this ever since I applied here," said one midshipman who asked not to be named.

Lt. Stuart Smith, a swim instructor, is standing at the edge of the 10-meter platform with another midshipman who also does not want his name used. The midshipman is leaning against the railing, with arms crossed and a suspicious look on his face while the lieutenant tries to woo him off the board.

"That's all there is to it," Lieutenant Smith says. "I'll jump right after you. Just a little hop like this, and you're off the board, and you'll know exactly where you will land."

Still, the midshipman on the 10-meter looks unconvinced as he walks to the edge and peers down.

"It's not that bad," he says. "I shouldn't be like this. I'm thinking too much."

Lieutenant Smith is frustrated.

"You don't have all day for this," he says. "You have to jump."

The midshipman quickly turns and walks down to the 7-meter where, after more hesitation, he jumps. So does a female midshipman. They and the others repeat that several times.

"This is my habit," she says. "I keep doing it over and over again. I take six steps back and do my deep breathing exercises. And then I just start walking. Once I start walking, I'm not allowed to stop."

That is a routine she developed with Lt. Brice Goodwin, the academy psychologist who teaches midshipmen relaxation techniques that help them overcome anxieties.

"Usually they have had some type of traumatic experience with water in their lives," he says.

"A common childhood one is memories of their parents lowering them into the water even though they were screaming that they did not want to swim."

The goal, he says, is to replace that type of negative image with a positive picture of them successfully jumping, hitting the water, surfacing and swimming away.

That's where the repetitive jumps from the lower boards help, he says. And the deep breathing exercises help cure the physical reactions, such as shallow breathing and shaking uncontrollably.

All of this did the trick for the female midshipman who, after three weeks of practice, nonchalantly climbed to the 10-meter platform and jumped as if she had been doing it all her life.

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