By Brandon O'ConnorApril 16, 2019
WEST POINT, N.Y. -- As soon as the second-place team was announced, USMA Black knew they had won.
Score updates throughout the two-days of the 51st Sandhurst Military Skills Competition had kept them on edge as they bounced in an out of first place. Sometimes, they'd hear they were atop the leaderboard. Other times, their Family and friends who had gathered to cheer them on would spur them ahead with the news they had fallen into second or even third place.
But following two days, more than 27-miles of rigorous rucking and 13 obstacles - including physical fitness, marksmanship and land navigation challenges - USMA Black stood above the competition.
"We were in a lot of anticipation this year because this was the first year where throughout the day, almost on the hour, they would post updated rankings," Class of 2020 Cadet Kevin Shinnick, USMA Black squad leader, said. "We all trusted each other, we trusted that we could win and that's exactly what we did."
The win by USMA Black marked only the third win by a U.S. Military Academy team since 1993 when Sandhurst expanded to include ROTC and service academy teams from throughout the country and competitors from international military academies. USMA Company B3 broke through in 2011, but USMA Black now stands above as they add this year's victory to the title they claimed in 2017.
Three members returned from the 2017 team to compete this year making them the first West Point cadets to win two Sandhurst titles since the expansion.
"I was thinking back to two years ago when we won for the first -time and who I was sitting with, and I realized I was looking at some of my best friends in the world here," Class of 2019 Cadet Matthew Hoey, USMA Black Alpha team leader, said. "This is the top moment of my cadet career."
This year's competition included 49 teams from throughout the world including four U.S. service academies, 16 ROTC teams and 14 international teams representing 13 countries.
The teams kicked off the week with an order of march relay Monday afternoon, which pitted the three fastest members of each team head-to-head in a four-and-a-half-mile relay race to determine a draft order to select start times for the competition.
Visiting teams were then given Tuesday-Thursday to familiarize themselves with possible obstacles, though they were not informed of the actual challenges, the number of obstacles nor the route they would be taken.
Friday morning, the teams stepped off and began a nearly continuous competition for the next 36 hours. Clear skies greeted them throughout the first day, but the temperatures cooled and the skies opened for a downpour Friday night - throwing an extra challenge into the evening events and disrupting the already minimal amount of time for sleep the teams were given.
"The night recon movement, everybody was starting to seize up from the day events," Hoey said. "I think that night event, it was raining, it was cold and dark and everyone wanted to go to bed, that's where you really started to see the gaps between the teams develop."
The rain continues through Saturday morning as teams exerted themselves at obstacle after obstacle along a course that Shinnick described as the "most in-depth, complex Sandhurst competition" he has seen in his four years competing and the hardest 36-hours of his military career.
No challenge along the course was simple as competitors rucked from location to location carrying a minimum of 35 pounds not including food, water and their weapons. Twist after twist kept the competitors on edge including the fact that for the first time they were given no route information ahead of time.
The marksmanship challenges may have looked like a reprieve on paper, but they were turned on their heads with exhausting physical fitness elements required before competitors were allowed to shoot.
The zodiac challenge also saw a new twist which forced the teams to respond to contact and two squad members to jump into the water and swim to shore. This year also included a separate swim event for the first time.
Months of early morning workouts and afternoon training prepared USMA Black for the challenges they would face throughout the competition as they reclaimed the Reginald E. Johnson Saber Plaque from the U.S. Air Force Academy.
"We train every day," Hoey said. "The squad leader and the team leaders, we have nightly meetings so in addition to morning workouts and afternoon practice, sometimes we will be spending an hour at night. We love it and we are willing to put in that extra work because we see it is going to pay off for us."
USMA Company D2 finished second overall followed by the University of North Georgia ROTC. With their third-place finish, UNG claimed the Sandhurst ROTC Cup for the second straight year. The competition for the title was tougher than ever this year as the number of ROTC teams was doubled from eight to 16 for the first time.
"It is great to secure [the ROTC Cup] because my guys and gals have worked so hard," Cadet John Michael Bordeaux, University of North Georgia ROTC officer-in-charge, said. "We came here, this is my first time, and it was wild."
The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst Blue team finished in sixth place overall and claimed the Sandhurst International Cup as the top foreign team in the competition.
"We have worked very hard for the past three months since Christmas time training three or four times a week at physical fitness and all the different skills" Officer Cadet Jamie Bamford, RMAS Blue squad leader, said. "It makes all that hard work worth it. It is a privilege to come out here and compete with teams from the U.S. and the rest of the world."
The Tom Surdyke Leadership Award for the top squad leader in the competition went to Cadet Adam Josephson of the Virginia Military Institute. The award is named for a former West Point Sandhurst competitor who died saving a swimmer from a rip tide while on vacation. Surdyke was a member of the Class of 2019. His parents and sister presented the award.