This year’s Sandhurst adds more wrinkles, stress

By Brandon O’Connor Assistant Editor

April 11th, 2019 | In Focus, News
 U.S. Military Academy Gold team members carry five-gallon water jugs as part of the “Burden” event during the Sandhurst Military Skills Competition last year.    Photos by Sean Kimmons/Army News Service
 U.S. Military Academy cadets from Company H-2 perform a water crossing in a Zodiac boat during the Sandhurst Military Skills Competition at West Point in 2018.

Friday, just as the sun finishes rising on the horizon, the first four of 49 teams will set off in the 51st annual Sandhurst Military Skills Competition.
The teams have traveled from far and wide, including crossing the globe from Australia, to put themselves to the ultimate test. Laden with packs weighing in excess of 40 pounds, the nine-member teams, including two alternates, will push themselves to the limit as they navigate from obstacle to obstacle throughout the two-day competition.
Unlike past years when teams were at the minimum given a map to their first few challenges, this year they won’t be told their next destination until they have finished the challenge at their current one.
With more than one route, teams unsure of where to go won’t even be able to try and follow teams ahead of them. If they do, they might just end up at entirely the wrong location.
The goal with the change is to test the teams’ ability to make quick, correct decisions while dealing with exhaustion and all the uncertainties of the competition. When they step off Friday morning, the teams will not know what obstacles are ahead, how far they are going to have to travel or even how many obstacles await them along the route.
“The experience of combat is what we used to frame how the competition should look. We know combat is mentally, morally and physically demanding and we also know it is an extremely uncertain environment,” Maj. Travis Onischuk, officer-in-charge and lead planner for Sandhurst, said. “This year we really tried to increase the amount of uncertainty and the psychological demands on the teams. That uncertainty is something that is as much an obstacle the team has to overcome as any physical task.”
Teams will be competing in both daytime and nighttime challenges to test a variety of military skills and their ability to work together. Tuesday, Wednesday and today, the visiting teams were given the ability to take part in training exercises to prepare for the competition, although the actual challenges were not revealed.
Squad leaders also had the chance to do a recon of the site earlier in the year to gain familiarity with the area. Onischuk said they have worked to make everything as equitable as possible to not give the 15 U.S. Military Academy teams an unfair advantage.
Throughout the two days, the teams will be scored based on their ability to complete the obstacles they face. While speed matters, going too fast could lead teams to incorrectly complete the challenge or even complete the wrong challenge. Onischuk said they tried to strike a balance by developing challenges that would reward teams for being quick, but also force them to be methodical about making sure they are completing challenges correctly.
“It takes more than strength, fitness and knowledge to compete in Sandhurst,” Class of 2022 Cadet Bliss Hutchings, who is competing on Company D-2’s team, said. “Every individual needs an immense amount of mental toughness and motivation to work harder every day. The combined drive to be the best and support each other sets my team apart. I know when the darkest hours hit, our team will rise above the rest of the competition and exceed every expectation. We will win because we are more than a team, we are a family that refuses to let each other down.”
Along with the team scores, this year there will be a more detailed approach to grading and judging the squad leaders for their performance at each stop along the way.
The squad leader with the highest score will be honored with the Tom Surdyke Leadership Award at the conclusion of Sandhurst. The award is named after a West Point Sandhurst competitor who died in 2016 saving a stranger from a riptide while on vacation.
“The competitions have pushed my limits both mentally and physically and given me the opportunity to participate in world class training,” Company C-3 squad leader Class of 2020 Cadet Daniel Archer, who is competing in his third Sandhurst, said. “We have been working together for almost seven months and have transformed from a group of individuals into a cohesive unit. We all really care about each other so when someone is hurting on a ruck march or during an event there is never a shortage of people who are willing to step in and pick them up.”
While many of the teams competing this year are returning from previous years, including all five of last year’s top finishers, Onischuk said at least a third of the competition is different and the events that are the same have new wrinkles or are scored differently.
Through the two days, teams are expected to cover more than the 28 miles required last year.