The Hard Part Isn’t Over

Inside the new Water Adversity Challenge

US Navy SEAL Chris Howe and St. Benedict's Prep UDI

Former U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Howe of Victory Road Leadership Development Group, runs the 'man overboard' simulation with a UDI. The Water Adversity Challenge (WAC) is part of the next-level leadership training St. Benedict's is instituting and is a requirement of all UDIs (sophomore students) in the Girls and Boys Prep Divisions. 

Three months ago, members of the Class of 2025 thought they’d earned a well-deserved break. They had persisted through the Overnight, been drafted to a Group, hiked The Trail and earned their membership into the St. Benedict’s Prep community. Summer Phase 2022 however, had a bigger challenge in store for UDIs beginning their sophomore year at The Hive.

It’s called the Water Adversity Challenge (WAC), a five-week intensive that tests students’ ability to survive in the water, with the larger goal of building confidence and resiliency. “We’re using water as a teaching tool,” said Chris Firriolo, president of Victory Road Leadership Development Group, the partner organization that helped design and facilitate the new program. “The idea is to create a skill set to manage change, perform under pressure and build team effectiveness within the UDI class.”

‘A great experience for all UDIs’

Here’s what the new rite-of-passage experience looks like in the fifth week of Summer Phase. It’s 8:30 a.m. and a group of UDIs are dressed in swimsuits, pants, hoodies and shoes. They mount the diving platform in the Henry and Agnes Brennan (HAB) Building and drop into the deep end of the pool. Once they gain their bearings and tread water, they remove their shoes, tie the laces together and place them behind their neck. Next, students remove their pants, tie the ankles together and inflate the garment with enough water to create a flotation device. Once they’ve calmly completed the steps and are in a floating position, the instructor will signal they can leave the deep end and the next group enters the pool.

“I think it’s a great experience for all UDIs,” said Darius Gilmore ’25 after completing the first round of the evolution. He and every UDI in the Green Team, the most advanced WAC group, will do the evolution again. This time, they’ll wear blackout goggles, which is disorienting. “You can’t see, and you don’t know where you are in the pool,” Darius explained.

They’ll also have to contend with Chris Howe, the former U.S. Navy SEAL facilitating the WAC. Howe adds more difficulties to the evolution (see video below) like splashing water and getting pulled underwater, a scenario one would likely encounter in a man overboard or water emergency. Darius seems ready for the next round. “I just have to go as fast as I can, make sure everything is right, and stay calm,” he stated.

“Stay calm,” could be the credo of WAC, which was developed in part to address the issue that young people of color have less exposure to the water. The American Academy of Pediatrics in fact, issued a report in July stating that teenage boys are 10 times more likely to drown than girls and Black children aged 5-19 are five-and-a-half times more likely to drown than white children. As Howe reminded the kids in the morning briefing, “Staying calm is super critical when you are facing adversity in the water.” Sanjana Basu Mallick, one of a dozen USNA midshipmen interning at The Hive for Summer Phase, couldn’t agree more. A resident of Edison, N.J. who spent her formative years in Elizabeth, Basu Mallick taught swimming before entering the Naval Academy. “Panic is one of the biggest reasons people drown or have near drowning experiences,” she stated. Technical skill alone, she notes, won’t help you overcome a fear of water. “It’s all just mental. To see how kids are able to calm down [in the water] and the huge change that can come from that is just outstanding.” 

Progress on all fronts

WAC has an academic component because as Headmaster Fr. Edwin Leahy, O.S.B. ’63 explains, “Kids need to reflect on the experience in order to process it.” In Summer Phase courses for instance, the lessons kids are absorbing in the HAB pool may appear as themes in the literature they are reading. Associate Headmaster for Academics Michelle Tuorto H’16 said the expanded leadership training, WAC and the WILD (Wilderness Inspired Leadership Development) Expedition for UDIIs, presents relevant topics for the classroom. “It gives students a way to practice literacy skills during the summer and to be able to say, ‘What am I learning in my leadership track and how am I applying some of the lessons to my life? Kids have a lot of opportunities to explore what they are learning about leadership through the lens of the books they are reading, discussing and writing about it with their teachers in their classes.”

UDI does the simulation in blackout goggles.

A UDI from the Boy's Prep Division does the simulation in blackout goggles which creates distortion. Students are trained to remain calm to overcome added adversity in the water. 

When WAC started on July 25, the class of 200 UDIs from the Girls and Boys Prep Divisions demonstrated a range of abilities in the water. There were advanced swimmers, proficient swimmers and kids who had never put their face in the water. Helayness Anabelle Suriel ’25 didn’t know how to swim before WAC. “I could only tread water for 10 seconds,” she recalled. Helayness began the leadership training on the Red Team, and with the encouragement of Midshipmen Sanjana Basu Mallick, swam 50 meters and treaded water for three minutes last week. She moved up to the Yellow Team and in the next set of evolutions swam and treaded water for five minutes in a hoodie, another triumph over adversity. Helayness was aiming to tread water for 10 minutes in a hoodie before the morning was over.

“There is not one student who didn’t make huge progress,” said Fr. Edwin, who has been present for most of the training. Darius Gilmore, who described himself as a decent swimmer before WAC, joined the water polo team a few weeks ago. “Once you start getting better and better, you want to swim more,” he said.  From the Observation Deck of the HAB, parents and relatives watched the evolutions unfold. “I’m so happy,” said Paola Rosa, as she watched her son, Nicolas Vazquez ’25, maneuver the man overboard simulation successfully. “I see more confidence.”

UDI from the Girls Prep Division runs the "man overboard" simulation

A UDI from the Girls Prep Division completes the "man overboard" simulation.

Confidence is the noun most used by students in describing what they’ve gained from WAC. “You may go into it feeling nervous,” said Darius. “Once you actually start doing it, you get this feeling like, ‘I just did this and I’m proud of myself for it.’”

“I feel more confident,” said Helayness. “I was able to prove that I could do it and if I can do it everyone can do it.” That’s the mindset Fr. Edwin was hoping to develop with expanded leadership training. “The purpose is to get kids to say, ‘I can’ instead of ‘I can’t,’” he said. “If we keep ramping up these experiences, hopefully kids learn that if you put your mind to it, you can overcome anything. Because they are going to find themselves in adverse situations in the future, whether it's transitioning to college or being the only person of color in the law firm. If they can reflect and learn from this experience, they can lean on it when challenging circumstances arise."

Helayness already gets the larger point of the program. “It’s not just to prepare for a water emergency,” she said. “We’re doing this for a purpose. To be tougher on ourselves.”

The final WAC evolution, the particulars of which are still being finalized, will take place the week of August 22. St. Benedict’s plans to review the program, apply learnings to improve it, and make WAC a permanent part of Summer Phase.

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