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Navy's job-specific fitness requirements could serve as model for Marines

Mar. 14, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
NAS Swim School-Fitness
Navy Airman Shannon Dobbins on the chin-up bars at Rescue Swimmers School at Pensacola Naval Air Station during training. (Tony Giberson/
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Adriana Ramirez, an airman at Pensacola Naval Air Station, recently passed a physical test of strength that many women in the Marine Corps have tried without success: She can do pullups.

“I went in not being able to do any pullups,” said Ramirez, 25, who enlisted in March 2013 and is making her way through the Navy’s air crewman program. Yet by the time she graduated last fall from one of the job’s training segments, the Rescue Swimmer School, she did eight pullups within two minutes to the approval of stern instructors.

The Marine Corps recently postponed its pullups requirement after finding that 55 percent of women tested aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., couldn’t perform the minimum three repetitions. The soonest female Marines could be required to perform three pullups to pass the Physical Fitness Test — or eight for a perfect score — will be calendar year 2015, said Capt. Maureen Krebs, a Marine spokeswoman at the Pentagon.

And they should plan for that, Gen. James Amos told Marines when he announced the delay via service-wide administrative message.

Navy rescue swimmers like Ramirez have to pass pullup tests to show they’re ready to respond to emergencies: from jumping into the North Atlantic to rescue downed aviators; to rappelling in search of survivors at a remote mountain crash site; and coming to the aid of civilians stranded by a hurricane.

Jessica Hunt, another airman who passed the test required of rescue swimmers, said she could do a few pullups at the beginning of their exercise curriculum, “but not good ones; not that they would count.”

That’s because, like the Marine Corps standard, the Navy rescue swimmer pullups must be done according to some strict rules. The required starting position for each pullup begins with the arms fully extended beneath the bar and the body motionless, and swinging on the bar or leg kipping to gain upward momentum is not allowed.

Tough as the Navy’s rescue swim pullup standards are, Waylon Wolf, chief petty officer and lead trainer at the Rescue Swimmer School pointed out, “This is a special program. Not every sailor in the Navy, man or woman, can do the number of pullups that we require here.”

But rescue swimmer training must be demanding, he said. “The pullup is an accurate assessment of a necessary skill for a rescue swimmer. You may have to do something akin to a pullup, such as pull yourself up on a sinking vessel to remove a survivor.”

Thus the Navy’s rescue swimmer course is “gender neutral,” said Wolf. “There just isn’t room for two standards. I don’t look at a young man any different than a young woman who comes through these doors.”

The Marine Corps is looking to all the other services — as well as conducting their own research — regarding changing fitness standards for men and women, Krebs said. That includes gathering information on tests like that which the Navy rescue swimmers take, which are not service-wide, but specific to certain military occupation specialties, she added.

The pullups requirement for Navy rescue swimmers is more than a decade old. Ramirez said meeting the requirement serves as an accomplishment in competing with men. “It definitely makes us feel good, that we can do the same things they do.”

Of course there are many other requirements to qualify as a Navy rescue swimmer, including the survival training in simulated emergency conditions.

Similarly, the pullup is only one hurdle for Marines who aspire to front-line combat jobs; they must carry heavy packs on marches, endure long hours in remote areas on grueling maneuvers that mimic the battlefield and much more.

But the pullup challenge still looms. Hunt, who conquered the bar en route to her coveted job as a Navy rescue swimmer, offered some encouragement to female Marines who can’t yet excel at pullups.

“I’ve seen a lot of females try it and they’ll think, ‘I can’t.’ ” she said. “That’s just set in their mind. I’d say you can do it; set a goal for yourself and set a reward for yourself.”

Staff writer Gina Harkins contributed to this report.

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