New Mids in poorest physical condition

Naval Academy runs plebes into shape

September 08, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

This year's incoming freshmen "plebes" at the Naval Academy were in poorer physical condition than those in any previous class, academy officials said yesterday.

Academy Superintendent John R. Ryan described the class of 2005 as some of the smartest and most motivated students the school has seen, but they fell short in their ability to run a few miles and pass the physical readiness tests at the beginning of the summer.

Out of the 1,016 freshman who took the tests when they arrived, only 246 passed with excellent marks. But, much like last year, more than 120 of them failed the test, unable to finish the required run or calisthenics.

Ryan attributed the trend to what he called the "millennial computer generation," who spent most of their adolescence sitting down. He told the school's oversight board at a meeting in Washington yesterday that the physical condition of new plebes has been declining over several years.

In response, the academy has begun revamping its physical training program to accommodate the out-of-shape high school graduates, he said.

"I remember when I was a plebe, they would hand you black boots and you'd run around the field until a couple of people threw up," Ryan said. "Then they'd tell you not to drink any water because water was for weaklings and they'd wonder why everyone hated to exercise.

"Now we give them a pair of quality running shoes, show them how to stretch and build them up throughout the summer," he said.

Throughout the six-week summer program, trainers conditioned the new students until they could achieve a daily 4.5-mile run as well as a 1.5-mile run in 10 minutes and a series of 65 pushups and 65 situps in two minutes each. By the end of the summer, 980 students had passed the test.

In past years, students entered the academy slim and fit enough to easily meet the athletic requirements, Ryan said. But in recent years, the school has sent out letters a month before summer training begins, warning students what lies ahead - a letter Ryan joked he isn't sure recent inductees read.

Despite the warning, training now starts out with lower expectations, requiring only a one-mile run to start and a few pushups.

But the training is intense enough to bring them up to standards in just six weeks. The freshmen train for an hour and a half each day starting at 5:30 a.m., followed in the afternoon by several hours of mandatory athletics.

The plebes are also required to "chop," or jog slowly, from building to building and room to room, all summer.

School officials call this training "smarter, not harder."

"The thing you always see a plebe doing during the six weeks of plebe summer is running," said academy spokesman Cmdr. Bill Spann. "They run, run and run."

Some members of the board joked yesterday that they might want to join the school's training program as well.

In another apparent nod by the Naval Academy to a growing sensitivity to student issues, a task force reported yesterday that school administrators and students were becoming more open and willing to talk about issues such as sexual harassment and racism.

Rear Adm. Ann E. Rondeau, who led the task force, told the board that the new openness was bringing a sense of dignity to the school community.

Ryan commissioned the task force last summer to study a lack of what he deemed "civility and respect" among students.

Rondeau said school officers and students had come a long way in the past year since she first looked at the issue.

She pointed to the success of the eating disorders program in helping to curtail the problem on campus and noted that many students feel safer on the yard, now that small things such as additional lighting and locks on the dorm room doors have been installed.

She cautioned, though, that the school has a way to go.

"A highly competitive environment like the Naval Academy's has the tendency to exaggerate the good and the bad in terms of behavior," she said.

In the annual midshipmen's survey also presented yesterday, students reported feeling more positive than previous years in their perception of the school administration and their decisions to enroll in the academy.

The survey gave the school low marks, however, on disciplinary actions: only 40 percent of students thought punishment was "fair and appropriate," down 7 percent from last year.

Ryan also told the board, which consists of senators, congressmen and presidential appointees, that the program to renovate the school dorm and many other buildings was nearly done. The school's campaign to raise $175 million for athletic facilities, endowed faculty chairs and a renovated football stadium is well under way, raising more than $80 million so far, he said.

In a somewhat awkward moment, board members pressed Ryan as to whether he was considering a second term, noting the faculty senate's recent vote to support such a move. Ryan has so far avoided giving an answer but gave a small hint yesterday.

"As you may well know, in the culture of the Navy, there are 50 to 60 generals and admirals who tell me they would be happy to take my place," he said. "The Navy has a large number of highly capable people," who would make good replacements.

Maryland's Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski pressed him: "So is that a no?"

Ryan replied: "Senator, there are an awful lot of reporters here."

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