On the count of three, Nathan Storm lurched forward across a field at the Naval Academy, pulling a rope tied to a truck-sized tire. He heaved and grunted, dragging the tire across the grass.
Beside him, dozens of fellow midshipmen performed push-ups and tossed a rock the size of two bowling balls as far as they could -- all in the name of sportsmanship, competition and titles, such as "Best Rock Thrower."
Almost every year since the late 1800s, the rivalry between West Point and the Naval Academy has flared during the weeklong festivities that precede Saturday's annual Army-Navy football game.
But this year, as the war continues in Afghanistan and upperclassmen from both schools become more aware than ever of the future they share, the contests have fostered more camaraderie than competition.
Students at both schools have been seen cheering each other on at pep rallies and contests, and have gone as far as sporting both Army and Navy insignia -- blasphemy any other year.
"It's a changed climate," Storm said. "In six months, when I graduate, I could be in a fleet with a platoon leading them into a ground war.
"The [cadets] are essentially setting out to do the same thing we are," he said. "We all come from basically the same place, and really, we're all going to the same place."
The rivalry between the schools -- as well as the two services -- dates back 102 years, to the first Army-Navy football game.
Back then, some students became so caught up in the competition that they challenged each other to a sword-drawn duel that was halted only when the secretary of defense stepped in.
`Squids' and `Whoops'
Over the years, West Pointers have used this week to call midshipmen "Squids" (because they're "slippery and like the water"), while Mids called cadets "Whoops" (because in their uniforms, they look like "the monkeys from the Wizard of Oz who screeched "whoop" when they descended on Dorothy).
"There's no better rivalry than Army vs. Navy," said junior midshipman Hope Kelly after finishing the "Strongest Mid Competition."
The afternoon-long contest tests their strength and enthusiasm with events such as holding a rifle overhead the longest, completing the most pull-ups and throwing that big rock the farthest.
The midshipmen also compete in a chili cook-off and the Bancroft Hall golf tournament, which is played indoors with mops, sticks and brooms.
Cadets at West Point in New York participate in similar contests this week.
"There's so much that's different about us," Kelly said, "but there's so much that's the same. We're all going to be officers and most likely everything we're going to be doing in the future is going to be a joint operation."
For the eight cadets studying at the academy for the fall semester, the normal pranks and teasing between schools came to an end the morning of the terrorist attacks Sept. 11. Many of them say the spirit at both schools this week has been more fervent than before, but more focused on supporting both schools.
"It's always been us vs. them, especially this week," said West Point Cadet Andrew Johannes. "But what's happened has really brought all that into focus, even here. When it comes right down to it, you can see beyond this."
"We all believe in red, white and blue," said fellow cadet Daniel Whitten.
Tradition and rivalry
Lt. Col. James Whaley, director of public affairs at West Point, said the mood on campus this week has seemed less focused on the rivalry and more focused on tradition -- something the game has always been filled with.
On Saturday, TV viewers will watch both schools march on to the field at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia at the beginning of the game and stand at attention for each others' school song at the end of the game.
"We're competitive for 60 minutes on the field, but we're comrades in arms," Whaley said. "This year, people will be watching more than a football game.
"These men and women from both schools epitomize duty, honor and country ... and they have led the nation through world wars, conflicts and nation building," for more than 150 years, he said, pausing. "Of course ... go Army, beat Navy."