Whether madly paddling across the James, 

Extreme Team

Tatiana Morales grits her teeth and begs for help.

Her taut arms feel as if at any second they'll be yanked from their sockets if she doesn't let go. Fiercely, she scrambles to keep her footing on the soft and muddy Belle Isle slope that now spitefully doubles as nature's treadmill. "Whose bright idea was this?" she thinks. Instructor John McGuire really must be crazy.

Just two hands link the 32-year-old computer programmer to an unbearable weight that tugs at both sides of her body - a body that until 10 days ago she considered to be in good shape. Morales strains to focus and keep steady. Seconds seem interminable. The 22-member chain dangles from the precipice. The mission - to tag the sapling 100 feet below and retract safely to the top of the hill - is nearly impossible. And Morales is stuck — smack in the middle of the mess.

It doesn't occur to her that, while she's out here fighting with every ounce of her 120 pounds, no one off this island shares her pain. While much of the city sleeps at 6:10 a.m., Morales and her teammates surge with adrenaline that's already helped put jumping jacks, push-ups, a mad paddle across the James and a sprint along Belle Isle's sandy trail behind them. Heavy from life jackets and waterlogged sneakers, the group will endure more of the same before they raft-race back to the parking lot, where they will get into their cars and return home or go to the gym to shower before work. It's a morning routine most would call torture, but for members of Seal Team Physical Training, anything less wouldn't be a workout. What's more, they say, it's the best part of the day.

Ironically, at a time when obesity threatens the health of more Americans than ever before, the number of athletes competing in extreme sports has spiked to become a national trend. In 1976, only 25,000 Americans were running in marathons compared to 435,000 today. The triathlon, that ultimate test of strength, endurance and versatility, has become a testing ground, not only for Iron Man types but also for conditioned and willful amateurs. It's perhaps just how far an athlete has to go to distinguish himself. And Seal Team Physical Training, the military-style team experience that capitalizes on the training of former U.S. Navy Seal McGuire, is a clear example that the same fanaticism lives in Richmond.

Fanatic is precisely what Morales is calling these people. She can't even imagine what the next half-hour will bring. Today, it's a race along a hilly narrow trail dodging bramble, roots and rocks, and a climb over a slippery 12-foot vaulted tree while teammates watch her back. Everybody here knows Seal Team class is never the same thing twice. It's why Morales coughed up $250 for the initial two-week training, even though she plays tennis three times a week and works out regularly at the gym. For the extreme-sports-minded like Morales, there's no substitute for the pain - and the high - that this kind of exercise brings. In just nine days with the Seal Team, Morales has discovered muscles she never knew she had. And for the better portion of last week, every one of them ached to remind her. But for Morales, her body pulled taut in agony on the muddy hill, nothing compares to the mental burden she carries: If she lets go half of the human chain will tumble, and those teammates could get hurt.

Instructor McGuire, 31, wouldn't have it any other way. His 5-foot-8-inch, 150-pound muscular body moves like an action figure ready to save the world when needed — and not a moment sooner. Outwardly, his boyish face stares intensely as he shouts, "Talk to your buddies!" and "Don't let them fall!" He looks concerned but somewhere inside he's smiling. And while McGuire is quick to say safety is key to every Seal Team exercise, a situation like this — where people not only question their strengths and skills but must learn to trust in them — is proof that the program works. And while for many it's a sharpening of already existing physical strengths, for others it's the brand-new realization that anyone, if she tries hard enough, can find the athlete within. It's this reacquaintance with the body and what it's capable of that turns Seal Team skeptics into believers and completes an otherwise underdeveloped physical self.

(Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)
Seal Team PT members finish a run up the long hill from the James through Byrd Park and wait in push-up position for other members of the team to fall in line.
Though McGuire spent 10 years with the elite U.S. Navy Seals that inspires his group's name, the Seal Team Physical Training program has no affiliation with the official U.S. Navy Seals. But McGuire says it was his Navy Seals training that taught him about chaos and how to control it.

McGuire instructs the women at the bottom of the chain to communicate with the men at the top. Morales desperately bites her lip and doubts the hand that barely holds onto hers.

"Strategy intrigues me," says McGuire. "I love it when the underdog wins, because that's what it is - strategy."

Athlete or not, each has much to learn about teamwork. "Know your limits," preaches McGuire. "Listen to your bodies, you know them better than I do. And listen to your buddies. You're no good to me if you don't." And everyone - from those who've been coming for months, years even, to four new recruits — expects to gain more than boosted morale and physical strength from McGuire. If they didn't, they wouldn't be paying him the $65 to $85 apiece monthly to brave everything from pouring rain to snow to scorching heat for his intractable Monday through Friday morning or evening hour-long workouts. Class is only cut short under three conditions: lightning; 32 degrees in freezing rain; or zero degrees. "Last year during Hurricane Floyd, as much as it pains me, I canceled [class]," McGuire says wincing.

Each day, McGuire announces where the next day's class will meet. Workouts vary from the track at J.R. Tucker High School to Bryan Park to Belle Isle and Byrd Park. And each one is known for its unique challenges. "It's at your own pace," reminds McGuire. Try telling that to the recruits of Class 48.

Graduates of the two-week training wear blue-and-yellow Seal Team T-shirts. Their numbers have grown from five to well over 25 for each of the two classes. Patti Wetlaufer, 33, recalls the sting of last winter's. "Getting up at 5 a.m. is tough enough as it is. But when it's 15 degrees and black outside, now that's hard." But thankfully, she says, McGuire's not the mean Navy Seals instructor she thought he'd be. "You're expecting this hulking massive guy in your face calling you a maggot," she says.

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