From UT San Deigo
Between 50 and 90 push-ups in two minutes. Same for sit-ups. Ten pull-ups, but more like 18 to stay competitive. Run a mile and a half in 10 minutes. Swim 500 yards — that’s five football fields — in 12 minutes, sidestroke.
Those are the physical requirements to merely knock on the front door at the Navy SEAL training compound in Coronado, where all SEALs are made.
“It’s definitely doable,” said 21-year-old UC San Diego swimmer Sandy Hon. “I would have to train, but this doesn’t sound too difficult.”
Last week when the Defense Department said combat jobs will open to women in the next few years — including maybe the elite Navy SEALs and Army Rangers — much of the public debate was about physical standards. Can women meet them?
Certainly, for the special-operations jobs, it would have to be exceptional women. They are dealing with less ability to build muscle mass, smaller frames and less natural upper-body strength.
But several elite female athletes around San Diego say those standards are within their reach.
“Personally, I think I could eek out the minimum for pull-ups and push-ups right now — though with a little more specific training, who knows,” said Katya Meyers, 32, a professional triathlete in San Diego who competes on the Iron Man circuit.
“In short, I think every female pro triathlete could at least meet the minimum requirements with specific strength training.”
Olivia Fountain, another UCSD swimmer and former child gymnast, said she thinks American women would step up to the plate, if allowed to compete for a SEAL’s trident or another elite military job.
To her, the standards for women have been set too low.
The 21-year-old who graduated this month remembers when as a girl she wanted to take part in a strength contest alongside the boys, but she wasn’t allowed.
It was at an air show. There was a boy’s contest, with pull-ups. And a girl’s contest, in which they hung from the bar while timed.
“I asked them if I could do the guy version of the pull-ups, and they wouldn’t let me. And I remember being so upset about that. I was like, ‘I could totally bust out 50 pull-ups right now, and I could totally win, the legit way,’” Fountain said, laughing at the memory.
“I always have thought that women should at least be given a shot. At least my teammates and people who I’ve trained with all my life — there are women out there who can do that type of training.”
Certainly, it’s only exceptional men who make the cut for SEALs now.
The Navy has a 75 percent dropout rate at the 21-week Coronado training course known as Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL, or BUD/S. It involves enduring the cold Pacific surf, carrying logs overhead, and hours and hours of boot camp-style exercise. The point is to break you if they can.
To get into that hellish program, candidates must pass a physical screening test consisting of the push-ups, pull-ups and run and swim times.
The Marine Corps’ Special Operations Command has its own physical requirements. To apply, a candidate must have a minimum score of 225. On average, that means 15 pull-ups, 75 sit-ups and a three-mile run in about 22 minutes.
The standard to get into Marine officer candidate school is the same.
Fountain’s specialty — pull-ups — might be the hardest part of the SEAL or Marine Corps test for women. Nature has stacked the deck against females for upper body strength.
Testosterone allows men to put on more muscle bulk, and the difference is most pronounced in the arms and chest. That’s why some bodybuilders use steroids, which are made up of different types of testosterone.
Women have up to 50 percent less upper body strength than their male counterparts, said Dr. Catherine Robertson, a UC San Diego orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine.
Still, she said, working out with modern training methods makes a huge difference, almost leveling the playing field in some cases.
“Your elite female athletes are going to beat the average male any day of the week,” Robertson said.
“The female athlete versus male athlete, the male is probably still going to have more upper body strength. But it’s a spectrum, and some women really have a tremendous ability to gain muscle.”
In the plus column for females, they tend to be more flexible and have better balance.
Another issue for women is their bones. Women have a slightly lower bone density and therefore a higher chance of stress fractures.
In the SEALs, this could come into play because fighters typically carry 80 or 100 pounds of gear for miles. That weight will rest heavier on a 150-pound woman than a 185-pound man.
But Robertson said modern methods can help women here, as well.
“It’s not a forgone conclusion,” she said. “It needs to be monitored a little bit more closely in women, particularly if they have a prior stress fracture. But with a good diet and appropriate weight-bearing training (which builds bone), there’s no reason we should see a very high number, even in our very active female athletes who are having to carry heavy packs.”
Fountain said she became a pull-ups specialist — her former coach said maybe the best on the team, male or female — because of early training as a gymnast. She learned to use her back muscles to start the pull-up, saving her arms from doing all the work.
But the upper body work still isn’t easy, even for elite women.
San Diego lifeguard Brittany Rowe, 27, runs and swims all the time — basically for a living — plus her personal workout routine includes four or five sets of 20 push-ups.
But meeting the SEAL bar for pull-ups would require tons of extra work, said the former UCLA water polo player.
“I would say with a lot of training a handful of women could do that,” Rowe said. Still, if she was interested in the military, “that’s where I’d want to go.”
That “handful” result may lead to numbers problems for the SEAL command.
Some former SEALs say they don’t doubt that a few good women may make the cut. But that raises another question: In a force of 2,500 SEALs, what if only 100 or 200 are females? How does the Navy provide separate showers, tents and other facilities for them in remote, austere combat situations?
That’s one thing that former SEAL Dick Couch thinks about. He’s the author of several books about special-operations training, including “The Warrior Elite.”
“If you hold the standard as it is right now, you may or may not get enough women meeting that standard. To do so, in my opinion, you’re going to have to lower the standards, and I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do,” said Couch, who believes that the issue of women in combat should be decided by Congress, as an expression of the will of the American people.
The U.S. Special Operations Command said last week that it would study its ability to integrate women into the smallest frontline units, reserving the right to raise objections if it looks unworkable.
Of course, being an elite fighter isn’t all about physical prowess.
Meyers, the Iron Man veteran, said that while female triathletes can probably check the boxes on sit-ups, runs and the like, that doesn’t mean that every one could become a fighter.
A 2009 study by the Coronado SEAL command revealed that being a chess player was a strong predictor of success in BUD/S.
It’s conventional wisdom among SEALs that mental toughness — resiliency and simply refusing to give up — are just as important as big muscles.
Do men get the lion’s share of that trait?
Hon, a slender 5-foot-6 UCSD swimmer, said her mental toughness is tested and proved every morning at 6 a.m. when she stares into the cold pool before diving in.
Her workouts are from 6 to 8 a.m., then 2 to 5 p.m. during most of the year. On top of that, there’s following the proper nutrition and getting enough rest.
After all that effort, her best hope is to shave just fractions off her time at a meet.
“It’s mentally, physically and emotionally draining,” she said. “You have to manage your stress level.”
Her former teammate Fountain said she does it — the cold mornings, the muscle aches, the time lost to other pursuits — because she loves the challenge.
“I love the way it feels, and I love motivating people to try and make themselves better also,” she said. “I know how it makes me feel — I love being in insane shape, I love having all this energy — and I never want to lose that.”