It's 2:30 in the morning at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and it feels like the whole campus is wide awake.
It's Sea Trials day, a grueling, 14-hour training exercise that freshmen, or plebes as they're known at the academy, go through as the culmination of their first year. It is a chance for the Navy's future leaders to experience a physical and mental challenge designed to test their teamwork skills and reinforce the bonds the class formed during their first year at the academy
Sea Trials began in the spring of 1998 with the Class of 2001 as the first participants. The event is modeled after the Marine Corps' Crucible and the Navy's Battle Stations recruit training exercises.
The exercise serves as a test for the fourth-year midshipmen, giving them a chance to demonstrate their leadership ability as they prepare to graduate.
The event is not open to the public, but CNN was asked to not only observe but participate. Coy Wire, a nine-year NFL veteran and current CNN Sports anchor, was invited to take part and see what makes this event so special.
"Not many civilians have ever been asked to take part in this very special rite of passage for these future defenders of our nation, so you can imagine how humbling it was to be invited," Wire said. "I don't take for granted the privilege of being able to take viewers inside a world that not many people get to see."
Each class at the academy is divided into companies and plebes sleep, study, drill, play and compete as teams with their company mates. It's no different for Sea Trials.
The first plebes arrived at 2:15 a.m., whooping and cheering as they took to the illuminated field to start their warm-ups. As the minutes ticked away toward 2:30 a.m., more companies arrived, some with their faces painted like they were ready to play in a football game. Many plebes said that it was almost impossible to sleep the night before, and those that did sleep, slept in their clothes so they could jump out of bed and be ready at a moment's notice.
Dark Phase was first up. With events like stretcher carries, crawling underneath barbed wire, and giant tire flips, it gets the blood flowing when most people are deep into REM sleep. The enthusiasm was infectious as the plebes cheer and encourage their classmates as they complete their tasks.
The rest of the day is full of events that are designed to push the plebes to their limits.
Wet and sandy has them crawling in mud and doing leg kicks in freezing cold water.
In the pool phase, plebes tread water with a rifle held above their heads and unlock padlocks while holding their breath under water.
Between each event, the plebes are constantly running, doing pushups and hydrating. It feels as though they never stop moving.
Other events include the obstacle course, pugil stick fighting, a rucksack run, simulated, casualty evacuation and the endurance course, which includes a 3.1 mile run through the woods, rope climbing and running up hills. The exercise brings a sense of pain and exhaustion that few have experienced before and will make them better sailors. It helps them learn what it takes to survive in the toughest of circumstances, something they will need in their naval careers.
Event is designed to test teamwork
The England national rugby team famously trained with the Royal Marines for years, including during the lead-up to their 2003 Rugby World Cup title. In 2016, the NFL's Atlanta Falcons trained with retired Navy SEALs for four days.
Why do athletes do this? To gain a competitive advantage. Lately, more and more sports teams, both professional and otherwise, are finding that military-style training helps build team bonds that a regular training camp or practice may not give them.
"Our worlds are really different in terms of special operations and the things that they do, but the connection that takes place within the team, that part, they've nailed," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn told Sports Illustrated.
Wire acknowledged the comparisons between Sea Trials and the NFL.
"This was a bit nostalgic for me. Playing nine years in the NFL, I learned that the best teams are made of selfless individuals who help their teammates to persevere, rise, and conquer," Wire said. "Seeing these young men and women care about the person next to them completing Sea Trials just as much as they cared for themselves made this one of the most inspiring experiences I've ever had."
The Naval Academy class of 2022 is deep into the fall semester. You can almost guarantee they have the date for May's Sea Trials already circled on their calendar.