ENCINITAS, Calif. — Joe Stumpf snaps the 115-pound barbell up to his chest and swiftly lifts it over his head, holding it with gritting teeth and locked arms as sweat streams down from his gray hair line.
The barbell hits the ground in a clang seconds later. After eight reps, the 54-year-old businessman dressed in camouflage pants rushes to the next excruciating exercise.
Stumpf is one of a growing number of Americans putting themselves through grueling fitness programs modeled after Navy SEAL workouts as interest in the elite military unit has soared since one of its teams killed Osama bin Laden. Everyone these days seems to be dreaming of what it’s like to be a SEAL, know a SEAL or at least look like one.
Book publishers say they cannot order the printings of the memoirs of former SEALs fast enough, while people are dialing 1-800-Hooyah! like mad to get their hands on T-shirts emblazoned with the SEAL insignia and sayings like: “When it absolutely, positively must be destroyed overnight! Call in the US Navy SEALs.”
Awe over the covert operation is even putting the city of Fort Pierce, Fla., on the map for vacation destinations. The city’s National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum — the only museum dedicated to the secretive SEALs — has been flooded with calls from people planning to visit.
But nothing short of joining the SEALs offers a more true-to-life taste of their toughness than the workout places run by ex-Navy commandos.
“Every little boy has got a SEAL in them,” Stumpf joked after completing one of the workouts in Southern California.
Former Navy SEAL Cmdr. Mark Divine said his business has been inundated with inquiries since the raid. Most have been from the general public caught up in the excitement over the surprise attack on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. He said military candidates aren’t showing greater interest and Navy officials say visitors to recruiting centers have not spiked since the historic May 2 operation.
“Certainly a lot of corn balls have called for sure — people who wouldn’t stand a chance of making it through our training,” said the brawny accountant-turned-SEAL who founded NavySEALs.com, SEALFIT and US CrossFit gyms in the beach town of Encinitas, just north of San Diego. “I had an e-mail today from a kid asking if I could train him from home because his parents don’t want him to become a SEAL.”
Divine started SEALFIT to help sailors and Marines interested in becoming special forces members by giving them a peek at the Navy’s notoriously brutal basic training for SEALs. His tough workouts, he says, also save the dreamers “from four to five years in the Navy chipping paint for the USS Never-Sail.”
Divine soon discovered even people who will never be a SEAL could benefit from his trainings, which run the gamut from daily hard-core workouts to a month-long live-in academy involving 10 hours of exercise, seven days a week.
The fittest can move on to a SEALFIT camp, which is based on the Navy’s “Hell Week,” the defining moment for SEAL candidates who must endure more than five days of constant exercise — including swimming, running, and slogging through mud — on fewer than four hours of sleep a day.
Camp-goers exercise for 50 hours without sleep, and get to go out on a mock, SEAL-type mission.
“It’s not easy to determine who is going to make it through SEAL training or not,” Divine said. “The secret sauce is inside of you. It’s mental toughness and unbeatable spirit.”
Stumpf wanted to find out if he had that “sauce” long before the national euphoria erupted over the SEALs.
Eight months ago, the business coach for real estate agents and mortgage brokers started taking Devine’s SEAL training class to prepare for the 50-hour camp.
On a recent afternoon, Stumpf kept stride with the men half his age as they race walked a half-mile down an Encinitas street, lugging up to 70 pounds in weights in each hand. At one point, Stumpf stopped and dropped his 55-pound kettlebells to the ground, letting out a grunt and sigh of total exhaustion. As the others fast approached, he picked them up again and made it across the imaginary finish line.
“If you really want to find out what’s happening in Afghanistan, you want to get a taste of it and you’re never going to be over there to do it, but you might be admiring what’s going on, you can come here and get a little taste,” he said. “I like that I’m getting to taste something that a lot of men are putting their life on the line for. I encourage men my age to go for it. To push it, push it all farther than they ever have. Taste what they teach.”
Stumpf said the timing of the SEAL mission coinciding with his training has made his pride over the historic event feel much more personal.
“I got phone calls from all my colleagues that know I’m doing this and they were like, ‘Hey man, you guys did it!’” he said, laughing. “Well, I’m like I’m not a SEAL! But I’ll take it. So I put the shirt on that day, you know.”
He added with a chuckle that at least, “I’ve got the T-shirt!”