COVID-19 impacts ‘plebe’ training at Naval Academy

Courtesy photo: Ellie Abraham (center) and fellow midshipmen undertake some teamwork-oriented vigorous physical fitness training during “plebe summer” at the United States Naval Academy (Annapolis, Maryland).

BROOKINGS – In July 2020, Brookings High School graduate Eleanor “Ellie” Abraham was one of about 1,200 select young men and women reporting to the United States Naval Academy (Annapolis, Maryland) to begin their “plebe” year as midshipmen. 

Prepared to begin a demanding physical and academic four-year regimen that would culminate in their becoming commissioned officers in the Navy or Marine Corps, they would be the first incoming class to deal with a challenge facing their countrymen at large: coronavirus disease 19 – aka COVID-19.

Abraham would find herself appreciative of the mandated protective measures the Academy put in place to protect its midshipmen. She found herself in two different environments: training environment during “plebe summer” and the academic-year environment that followed.

During the six-week, 44-day introduction process of plebe summer, the new midshipmen were, as she explained, “put through what’s called restriction of movement, the RAM for short, which is a quarantine.

“So right when I got there, my roommate and I had to isolate from everyone else. All the rooms down my hall were filled with roommates who couldn’t get within 6 feet of any other people except each other.”

During the two-week RAM, Abraham said the plebes were “let outside once or twice a day to walk around (a cross-country and track standout at BHS, she ran some laps) and get some sunshine. We did some training online; after that the real plebe summer began. It kind of went back to the normal of what it usually is for the entire time.”

“We still had to wear masks all the time,” she added. “They had to cut down on the physical activities; because of the COVID and the two-week RAM, people got out of shape and were not conditioned to the heat.

“We had a ton of heat casualties on the first day we did a PE (physical education) session. So for the remainder of the summer they didn’t push us as hard because they didn’t want more people passing out during the COVID year than during a normal year. Other than that, the last four weeks were kind of like a normal plebe summer.”

COVID cases spike

With plebe summer behind them, the midshipmen began the academic year in late August. Aagain the impact of COVID was felt.

“For the first month we weren’t allowed off campus, off what we call the yard, at all,” Abraham said. “My cross-country team had special exceptions. We could bus out to the golf course. And then a little later on we could bus out to less populated areas and run the trails.”

About mid-to-late September, they were “finally allowed to go on ‘liberty.’” They could leave the yard and go into Annapolis. That lasted until about a week before Thanksgiving.

“Then the COVID cases really spiked at the Academy,” Abraham said. “So much so that the entire isolation wing filled up with people; so they shut us down into a hard RAM again. We couldn’t see anyone but our roommates for a week. We could only leave our rooms to work out.”

Again no one, including the cross-country team, was allowed to leave the yard until leave, which began on Dec. 13 and goes to Jan. 10. Here in Brookings, Abraham is spending time with family and “running a lot, relaxing a bit.”

Academics a real shock

Classes started online in late August, but after two weeks they went in-person. Abraham compliments the Academy for the way it approached control of the pandemic.

“I guess that’s one thing I was fortunate to have at the Naval Academy,” she explained. “That because they have so much control over us, they can mandate us to wear masks and not leave the yard. “In-person classes for almost the entire semester was really great.”

An additional control measure was random mandated COVID-19 testing for all midshipmen. “You get an email the day before. You have to come in; it’s your military obligation,” Abraham explained, noting that the cross-country team was also tested before each meet. 

Her classes included: U.S. Naval History (“my favorite class by far”); Seamanship and Navigation; Introduction to Leadership; Rhetoric and English Literature; Calculus II; and Chemistry. She’s looking to major in history.

“It was a lot different than I expected,” Abraham, recognized for her academic, athletic and musical success in high school, said of the demands of the Academy’s academic regimen.  

“Academics were a real shock to me,” she said. “I knew it was going to be hard. I don’t think I’ve ever had to work so hard in school my whole life. It always made me feel like I was failing, even though I actually ended the semester doing fairly well in academics.

“There’s just so many different stresses going at me at once.”

The cross-country team was able to practice “just like normal, just as hard as if it was a normal competitive season.” The team hosted two home meets at the Academy, against University of Pittsburgh and Army (United States Military Academy).      

Add to that workload the time demanded by military and plebe duties.

“The first six weeks were a very big adjustment period for me,” she said. “Those were the worst weeks. I really had to learn how to manage my time, how to prioritize to get through it.” 

She learned to work with and rely on her teammates and fellow midshipmen.

Due to time demands, Abraham, a South Dakota All-State High School Band member on trombone for four years (first chair her senior year), opted for now to forego any musical pursuits at the Academy. In fact, she left her trombone back in Brookings.

Contact John Kubal at [email protected]

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