Sept. 9, 2010
At a recent preseason team retreat, the Tennessee swimming and diving team welcomed an honored guest, Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell.
A recipient of the Navy Cross and Purple Heart, Luttrell spent nine years in the Navy and saw significant time in Afghanistan. The Houston, Texas, native later recounted his heroic tour of duty in Afghanistan in the New York Times best-selling book Lone Survivor.
Head coach John Trembley read the book and immediately knew his team could benefit from Luttrell's story.
"After reading Lone Survivor, our team was asked to read it, as well," Trembley said. "Marcus is a hero and a patriot. He understands, hopefully in a way none of the young men on our team will ever have to understand, the importance of trusting your training and trusting your team.
"Our team greatly benefited from reading his book and hearing his story."
After reading Luttrell's book, Trembley began exploring options to bring the former SEAL to Knoxville to speak to his team. That is when Bill Matthews, who swam for Trembley at Mercersberg Academy and was a former Navy SEAL commander, stepped in to help.
"Apparently when one SEAL asks a favor of another, the answer is always yes," Trembley said.
Once at the retreat, Luttrell explained to the team his experiences in Afghanistan.
A part of Operation Red Wing, Luttrell and SEAL Team 10 were assigned to capture a high-ranking Taliban official. His team was comprised of three other SEALs, Michael P. Murphy, Danny Dietz and Matthew Axelson.
During their mission, they were spotted and engaged in a fire fight with approximately 150 Taliban gunmen. After a fierce battle that raged several hours, only Luttrell survived. Badly wounded and unable to walk, he evaded capture by crawling seven miles to a nearby village where he was given shelter and later rescued by American forces.
"Marcus and his experience are truly inspirational--we all admire his toughness," Trembley said. "He related to our team very well.
"There were many elements of his talk that paralleled what we are trying to accomplish here. For instance, he talked about teamwork, trusting your training, trusting your leaders--your captains or coaches--enduring the tough times and being there for your team."
After a 40-minute talk with the team, Marcus was invited to join a very special brotherhood.
The coon skin cap is one of the long and storied traditions of Tennessee swimming and diving. Only teams that display unity and truly embody the spirit of teamwork earn the cap--an historic symbol of Volunteers' commitment to service.
Trembley invited Luttrell to join the Tennessee family with a sacred token of appreciation--a coon skin cap. Luttrell becomes only the fourth individual outside the swimming and diving program to ever earn the cap.
Allan Jones, the namesake of Tennessee's state-of-the-art aquatic center who graciously contributed to its development, Medgar Harrison, the Vols current strength and conditioning coach, Ed Frasier, a longtime friend of Trembley and Tennessee swimming have all been awarded the coon skin cap.
"He was really surprised and touched," Trembley said. "He understood what that cap meant to our swimmers and the power that tradition carries with it in our program. He promised he would not wear the cap until our team earns it again."
With his inspirational words, the team prepares for the 2010-11 season. The Vols return a host of upperclassmen and welcome a plethora of newcomers to the Home Waters. Whatever challenges they face, Trembley hopes they will remember what they heard from Luttrell before they even dive in the pool and after their swimming careers end.
"Marcus emphasized how close he and the Navy SEALs he served with became," Trembley said. "They became his brothers. The closeness they felt arose from tough times they experienced in training and in combat.
"Our team will experience tough times in training and in competition this season. When those rough waters are upon us, this team needs to come together as a family. I am sure that they will be able to draw the inspiration they need to do that from Marcus Luttrell all season long."
Finding motivation to push through 5 a.m. practices and rigorous dry-land training can be tough, even for the most driven student-athlete. But Luttrell's message hit home with more than one of the Vols.
"Hearing what he went through made me realize that even when I am hurting or tired, someone out there has it worse than I do," Michael Wright, senior and team co-captain said. "I think it helped open the eyes and ears of team to listen to our leaders--we all want to get better."
(Front page photo by Marna Roch)