Plebes face one last trial

Endurance: For the Naval Academy's freshmen, the last day is the toughest as they slog through the tribulations of the 12-hour annual Sea Trials.

May 19, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Poised on all fours at the edge of puddle of mud, four plebes -- or Naval Academy freshman -- listened attentively as an upperclassman shouted orders.

"Stay on your hands and knees," yelled Adam Allegro, a sophomore. "And no head locks or choking." Pausing before he set the students loose into the chocolate-colored pool, Allegro added: "Oh, and this is mud wrestling -- so wrestle!"

With that, the plebes charged into the puddle, scrambling to find a water-tight picture of the academy's landmark Herndon Monument somewhere beneath the murky surface as part of the annual Sea Trials -- a day-long endurance test for the 1,150 plebes.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Wednesday's Metro section about Sea Trials at the U.S. Naval Academy incorrectly identified a female midshipman, Daryl Dawson, as "he." Dawson is a female midshipman in the class of 2007.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Tumbling in the mud was one of the more entertaining events amid 12 hours of running, swimming, sweating and heavy-lifting. At a time when many students at the Annapolis military college are soon to face the front-lines of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, many plebes said they view Sea Trials as light-hearted morale building.

"This is actually fun," said David Kinzler, who won his mud wrestling match by ripping the photo of the Herndon obelisk out of the mud-filled mouth of his classmate, Paul Kim.

Across the academy's sprawling campus yesterday, collective chants could be heard from plebes cheering on their companies as they competed in a range of physical and mental challenges, from obstacle courses and boat races to a swimming test and mock D-Day assault on the beaches of the Severn River.

Among the academy's many traditions, Sea Trials is relatively new -- begun in 1998 and modeled after the Marine Corps' 54-hour "Crucible."

"It's a test of leadership, which is not just something that's taught in the classroom," said Cmdr. Rob Gibbons, academy spokesman. "This is the capstone event for their entire year."

At 3:30 a.m. yesterday, the class of 2007 rose to face their final day as the lowest Mids on the totem pole -- dressing in camouflage and smearing their faces with brown and green paint. For the upperclassmen who planned and oversaw Sea Trials, the event meant one last chance to exert authority over the lowly plebes.

"Plebe year is about getting yelled at, and when you finish the year, you can yell at others," said Rebecca Wright, a sophomore who referred to her Sea Trials experience as a confidence booster. "We can make 'em do whatever we want."

Anything, that is, short of hazing -- strictly forbidden at all military academies.

Wright did her fair share of shouting in Lejeune Hall, the academy's swimming pool, where plebes endured such challenges as an underwater obstacle course and the dreaded leap off a 20-foot diving platform.

"That was pretty scary," said freshman Marcus Fowler, who inched his way off the platform -- his arms wrapped tightly around his chest -- after some cajoling from his classmates. "They encouraged me and made me realize that it's all mental -- it's just one step and then it's done."

In the adjacent swimming pool, upperclassmen put plebes through a test called the "Honeycomb." They gradually tighten long strings of floatation devices around a group of plebes treading water, pulling the group into a small circle to challenge the plebes' ability to stay calm and afloat in a constricted space.

"Some of them have panicked, and we've had to pull them out," said sophomore Amanda Minikus, who ordered one company to do push-ups poolside. To keep the plebes safe, lifeguards stood watch over every test.

Elsewhere on the school's 332-acre yard, plebes participated in team tests including tug-of-war, drills with 200-pound logs and racing through an obstacle course in the woods.

As temperatures rose, upperclassmen reminded the plebes -- their faces crimson from sun and sweat -- to drink water and eat orange slices to avoid dehydration and heat exhaustion, both of which had felled plebes during previous Sea Trials. Approximately 50 midshipmen are injured during the event each year, most of them with minor problems like sprained wrists and ankles.

At the end of the day -- caked in mud, sweat and in some cases, tears -- each plebe received a gold anchor, a symbolic end to the most demanding year of the Naval Academy. And, more importantly, an end to the merciless mockery of the upperclassmen.

When asked how he and his classmates planned to celebrate the completion of Sea Trials, 19-year-old Daryl Dawson said he had no plans to hit the town -- yet.

"Tonight we're all gonna crawl on our backs and pass out," he said.

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