The Coast Guard Lieutenant handed me a pair of khaki shorts. Her blond hair hung in a tidy ponytail over the back of her blue t-shirt; yellow letters declared “COAST GUARD DIVER.”
“If you make it through this week and get a billet as a Dive Officer, this is what you’ll wear for PT every day in Dive School. You’d better get used to running and swimming in them,” she said. The khaki shorts were made of a rough cotton material, two d-rings at the top and an attached cloth belt; designed for use in recompression chambers.
The dive shorts haven’t changed in style or material since at least the 1940s, when the original Frogmen, Navy and Coast Guard members of the Office of Strategic Services Maritime Unit, wore them during the Second World War. In the ‘60s, these same shorts were worn by the men in Sea Lab when they lived underwater for weeks at a time. Bob Croft wore them when he became the first human to dive beyond 200 feet on a breath-hold in 1968, a team of U.S. Navy Divers watching underwater for safety. In Vietnam, the divers wore them when conducting underwater surveys, and every diver since has worn them during training at Navy Dive School.
As I stood on the pool deck in my two-piece Speedo sports-bra swimsuit, the black bottoms covered by the high-waist khaki short-shorts, a senior member of the dive unit walked up to me. The chief’s bald head was shiny in the warm humid air, and I watched his brown push broom mustache twitch as told me with a straight face, “You’re not wearing these right.” He stepped in closer and grabbed the top of my shorts as I leaned away from him instinctually. He tightened the fabric belt while I stood deathly still, dumbfounded that this man would grab me in the open with the other divers a few yards away. Was anyone watching this?
The chief leaned down and said quietly, so only I could hear him, “You shouldn’t wear such a revealing swimsuit. It’ll give people the wrong idea, especially dirty old men like me.”
He winked at me and smirked, then gave the cloth a final jerk, pulling me off-balance. The chief walked away, and I was left standing frozen, wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. It was my first day of the Coast Guard Dive Screener, I’d just passed the Dive Physical Fitness Test (a 500 yard swim, pull-ups, sit-ups, pushups, and 1.5 mile run), and this man was already trying to put me down and show me that I didn’t belong at the dive unit.
A man with short brown hair and a Coast Guard Diver shirt called to me across the pool deck. I joined him and the group of divers, and he said to me, “You just passed the Dive PFT. That is the absolute minimum standard to begin training. Now we’re going to test your aquatic adaptability. Let’s see if you trained as much in the pool as you did on those pull-ups.”
He led the group in a risk assessment of the training ahead and instructed us that anyone could call a safety timeout at any time.
The divers told me to stay calm in the water as they introduced me to “drown proofing.” I tied my legs together with a short length of rope while sitting on the edge of the pool, then I slid into the water. Once I was face-down and holding my breath, the five-minute countdown began.
I struggled through the first part. With my legs immobilized, I tread water with my hands. Five people watched my every move and tried to push me to the breaking point. They splashed water at my face every time I lifted my head for a breath. I pushed my tongue into the roof of my mouth to block it, but drank the water that came in anyway. My eyes stung from the chlorine as I watched the feet of the people around me and tried to face away from them and sneak a breath. I was exhausted by the time they told me, “Five minutes! Now switch the rope to your hands.”
With the rope on my wrists, I couldn’t to tread water effectively. I sank, and kicked frantically to get back to the surface for each breath. Panic crept into my mind. How long has it been? I gasped for air and swallowed only water. Without thinking I released my clenched hands from behind my back and yelled, sputtering and coughing, “Safety timeout!” The divers stopped spinning and dunking me and pushed me to the edge of the pool, shouting at me to get out.
The mustached chief said loudly and in an angry voice, “Get in the leaning rest!” He kneeled next to me on the pool deck as I held the push-up position and said, “You need to relax.” This statement seemed laughable, but I made sure not to show any emotion on my face. I couldn’t allow them to see any fear or weakness.
Since 1975 when women were first permitted to attend Navy Dive School, we’ve been held to the same physical standards as male divers, often with the added pressure of intense scrutiny by instructors and peers of every action made in and out of the water. Donna Tobias, the first woman to become a Navy Diver, said about her time in training, “I told myself they’d have to make me leave. I wouldn’t quit. If you ever uttered the words, ‘I quit,’ you could never take them back, and there were plenty of eyes waiting to see me fail. I didn’t want them asking less of women, for anything.”
The divers told me they would have sent me home right then, if they hadn’t been desperate for decent Dive Officer candidates. I hadn’t said that I’d quit, only that I needed a safety timeout. I stayed for the rest of the week, proving that I was a competent runner and strong swimmer with fins on, but they kicked my ass every day in the pool with breath hold exercises.
Each night I dreamed of drowning and woke up sweating, counting down the hours and minutes until I would be back in the water. The smell of chlorine didn’t leave my skin until I was back with my unit on my ship and sailing homeward.
I didn’t see the mustached chief again after that first day at the screener, and I told myself that he was an outlier. I had to believe I would be treated like an equal at my dive unit, not given a different set of standards as a woman, or else I wouldn’t have the will to make it through training.
I didn’t have any idea that eventually I would be able to hold my breath for three straight minutes while someone dunked and spun me. By the time I got to Dive School, drown proofing was my favorite exercise, the only one where I could just relax in the peaceful quiet of the water, where my khaki shorts and white t-shirt blended into the group of bobbing bodies. The water felt like the safest place I could be.