The Navy SEALs have taken out the most wanted man in the world. Now comes another challenge – trying to get the U.S. women’s field hockey team on the Olympic podium.

A group of SEALs – none were part of the raid this month that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan – has put the Americans through intense training sessions the past nine months, as they prepare for a run in which they’ll attempt to qualify for the 2012 London Games.

SEALs have worked with the U.S. national team three times, and there are plans for more gatherings after the 13th-ranked Americans compete at the Champions Challenge in June in Dublin and the Pan American Games in October in Guadalajara, Mexico. The U.S. has to win the Pan American Games – that means defeating top-ranked Argentina – for a spot in London. The secondary Olympic qualifier is next year in Belgium, India and Japan.

Not since 1984 has the U.S. hit the Olympic medal stand – it won bronze that year in Los Angeles. The Americans placed eighth among 12 teams at the 2008 Beijing Games, then a load of retirements, including captain Kate Barber, prevented them from qualifying last year for the World Cup, in which they last claimed a medal in 1994. They’ve landed four straight silvers at the Pan American Games, finishing runner-up to Argentina each time.

The SEALs get players “into uncomfortable positions, being worked to a point of fatigue and stress, pretty much what we encounter in training and in games,” said sixth-year U.S. coach Lee Bodimeade, who catapulted Australia to a silver at the 1992 Barcelona Games. From there, they take it a step further, Bodimeade said, to “provide the environment that challenges the individual to be able to perform and maintain the success of the group.”

Even with 121 games under her belt, Olympian Lauren Crandall, 26, of Doylestown, Pa., maintains workouts with the SEALs are backbreaking because “people are screaming at you. There are lots of noises. You’re having to focus on the details. … They try to break us and get us angry at them, so we have to figure out ways to deal with our teammates.”

One member of the SEALs told Crandall how he communicates on deployments, “when things are stressed and nothing is going right,” she said, as “the helicopter is not coming and everything hits the fan.” It made her realize, “My body can do this.” She added, “In a way, you kind of have to turn your body off and mentally dig in to keep yourself going.”

Bodimeade embraces the notion of a tougher team, knowing his squad sometimes has as many as seven games in a 10-day span. “It’s a critical component to the success in those late stages,” he said, adding that “the stress and pressure that comes from the SEALs, that will enable you to develop that ability to turn your thoughts into a positive outcome. … A hard day in a game will never be as tough as a hard day with the SEALs.”

For Crandall, learning from the SEALs provides her with perspective on her career. “I’m doing something that is fun and light, and I get to represent my country,” she said. “They go out, and they risk their lives. They’re sacrificing for our freedom, and that’s something that they’ve committed to. And they don’t even realize the scope of what they’re doing.”

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