Photos by John O'Hara
A nationwide crusade for fitness might improve kids’ health and create a better pool of potential soldiers, but U.S. Navy SEALs recruiters aren’t waiting. They’re putting out a call to that percentage of American youth that takes pride in physical fitness, that focuses on athletic pursuits as varied as track and swimming, lacrosse, water polo, soccer or wrestling.
Or even freestyle cycling.
“I dabbled in a few sports as I grew up, just outside Chicago,” Mitch Hall said. “I was into freestyle bikes. That was pretty much how I spent all my spare time in my mid-teens.”
Hall, 33, joined the Navy to become a SEAL when he was 18 and now is an instructor — and a low-key ambassador who makes contact with potential recruits at civilian triathlons in which he competes.
Hopping around with his feet on axle pegs of a stunt bike might not seem like preparation for a Sea-Air-Land commando, but Hall made it work.
The balance and timing that are key to freestyle biking proved useful in smoothly running a complex obstacle course at a training compound in Coronado (San Diego County). After a SEAL recruit has made it through months of steady training, physical fitness and endurance have become non-issues. By the time a graduate pins that SEAL trident to his chest, he has swum hundreds of miles, run for hundreds more with boots and pack, and done an incalculable number of pull-ups, push-ups and sit-ups.
Then, his real work starts.
“Fitness is part of this job, just by nature of our missions,” Hall says. “Time is allotted in every day for each team member to work out. Now, I’ve been allowed to take it a step beyond, since I’ve begun competing in triathlons.”
Hall wears a big “fruit salad” of service ribbons on the breast of his uniform, including a pin indicating a Bronze Star medal. Because most SEAL missions are covert, he can’t really describe what he did to earn them. However, he does indicate where fitness helps.
“When you train at sea level, then jump off a helicopter at 8,000 feet of elevation in the mountains of Afghanistan, everything changes. If you must do high-altitude operations and go all night long carrying 60-100 pounds of gear, stresses start to add up quickly,” Hall said.
Chief Petty Officer Hall’s day job is instructing recruits in land warfare and tactics. Another role is representing the service at triathlons. He began with sprint-distance events in 1994, and has progressed to where he has earned medals in standard-distance contests (third at the 2005 New York City Triathlon, second at the 2004 Los Angeles Triathlon, first at Coronado’s Superfrog in 2005).
Now, he’s in hot pursuit of Ironman ultras. In his first swing at the Hawaii Ironman in 2005, he finished 207th out of a pack of thousands. On his jersey was the URL for the Navy SEAL Web site.
“I used to compete sort of anonymously. That’s changing,” Hall said. “Traditionally, SEAL teams did not openly recruit. Now we have a targeted program. Instead of dragging with a huge net, we focus on people with a high chance on making it through training … young athletes.”
Commander Duncan Smith, 47, is a former SEAL operative who now heads the commando-team recruitment office. In an interlude when he was in the reserves, he founded and ran Presidio Adventure Racing Academy in San Francisco.
“Let’s say, water polo is something you truly love,” Smith said. “Well, there is no career in water polo. But there is a life where you can be an athletic member of a team of people who are driven, dedicated, and value success of their team above all else.”