Meet Commander Keith Davids

Commander Keith Davids was one of three Navy Seals who parachuted out of a C-130 plane into Kailua-Kona Bay before competing in the 2008 Ironman Hawaii. Lars Finanger picked the brain of Commander Davids the day before the 30th anniversary event.

Davids began his athletic endeavors at the age of nine when he began sailing competitively. By the age of 11, he had completed his first marathon. Davids’ sailing abilities earned him the attention of the US Naval Academy, where he attended college and was recognized as an All-American. In 1988, he placed seventh in the US Olympic Trials and competed again in the Trials for the 2008 Games. After graduating from the Naval Academy and completing BUD/S training in 1990, Davids embarked on his career as a Navy SEAL. He currently serves as the Commanding Officer of SEAL Team ONE.

Slowtwitch: Will you be looking for a workout after 8-plus hours of racing is over on Saturday?

Keith Davids: Well first of all, I think 8 hours is too optimistic. I think the day is gonna be a lot longer. And two, you add the jump and all the prep that comes along with that. So, it's going to be a long day. I think I'm going to get what I need come Saturday.

ST: How many triathlons have you done before? Is this your first Ironman?

KD: I don't know. I've done them sporadically over the years but I couldn't tell you how many. This is my first Ironman.

ST: What is going to be the most difficult for you on Saturday, the jump or the race?

KD: I'm thinking about both. I have four events and will take them one at a time. In the morning, once I've got my body markings done and my water bottles filled and in place, I'll turn my attention towards the jump. Then once I get in the water and get that squared away and out of my parachute then I'll start thinking about the swim. I'm going to take the day one discipline at a time, quite frankly.

ST: How does the triathlon compare to the preparation that goes into training a team of US Navy SEALs?

KD: There are many similarities. There is bike preparation, body preparation, you’re thinking about preparing for your day and the long, arduous task ahead. You focus on each one individually. You take this insurmountable thing that lies in front of you and you break it into manageable pieces and then you execute. In that way, there are similarities. Certainly, there is a physical element to my job. It is certainly different than this, but there are parallels.

I think you’d find that most SEALs are performance oriented. We screen for people who are tenacious and won't quit. If you're on a mission the enemy will throw wrenches in your plans and I'm sure things won't go as planned but as far as I know, no one will be out there shooting at me and so that's the good news. I'm going to go out and enjoy the event. It's so cool to be here with all these world-class athletes and I think if you go out and push your body like this you learn something about yourself. I think it's going to be a lot of fun.

ST: You have a background in a very different sport. Tell us a bit about your competitive sailing.

KD: I competed in small boat sailing. There is a physicality to that too, but it's different. Instead of endurance it's you’re working really hard then resting, then working really hard, then resting. There is both individual and team, but I competed in the two-man boat. It's a 470-class sailboat, so two people.

ST: What got you into sailing?

KD: I started at the age of nine and competed as a youth and was a youth national champion and did that for years. Sailing competitively was my in with the Navy. I was recruited to the Naval Academy and the rest is history. I kind of got hooked on the Navy.

ST: Did you know SEALs was going to be a part of your plan when you were at the Naval Academy?

KD: No, absolutely not. I didn't know anything about SEALs. Back when I came in back in the mid-80's, SEALs were not terribly well advertised. It was a small component of the Navy - of course, it still is, but it has since grown. It has certainly grown in terms of its notoriety and the public exposure it's gotten with the Discovery Channel and all the other advertisements. I learned about it from a SEAL who was stationed at the Naval Academy who had just briefed us on who the SEALs were and what they do, but basically that they didn't need or want us.

ST: Were you not the typical body type that people thought a SEAL should look like?

KD: We figured out over the years there is not a stereotypical body type. We SEALs come in all shapes and sizes. The reality is, we have some guys who come to us like David Goggins who was 280-lbs but if you did a survey you would find that most SEALs are a little more wiry (than Goggins was) but also a little more stocky than your average triathlete. We need a lot more upper body strength but you also need to be able to handle cold water and withstand hypothermia. When you're carrying your weapon and body armor and then put your kit and rucksack on it adds up to 50 or 60 pounds. It sure helps to have some added upper body strength.

ST: What crossed your mind when Captain Duncan Smith told you he wanted you to jump from the plane and then compete in the Ironman?

KD: To be honest, it made it all a little more appealing. It added another dimension to this already epic race. I thought it was a great way to highlight Naval Special Warfare and the military and some of our unique skills. We do things that are similar to the Marines and the Army but what makes us different is the way we can get to a target. It was also a way to represent how we can take different ways to get to a target. In the Navy, sometimes getting to our target is even harder than the actual mission. I don't think that's going to be the case tomorrow for the race, but the jump does try to represent that.

ST: How was your triathlon preparation for this race with your day-to-day duties with your SEAL team?

KD: I get up early and go to the pool and try to squeeze in workouts around work. I am fortunate that part of my day job is fitness. If you came and joined my SEAL Team One for a day it would probably look a lot different than what your average workout might look like for a triathlete. There is a lot more functional fitness and a lot more strength training than you would do for a triathlete. Running and swimming is a part of that too. The reality is, most of my triathlon specific training takes place on the weekends including the longer runs and rides. I'm fortunate because with my current work cycle I've been able to spend the last few months at home. With that said, I have missed training days due to work conflicts too.

ST: What is the next deployment cycle looking like for you?

KD: Inside of one year, but sometime between half a year and a year away.

ST: Do you have other SEALs who trained with you for this race or is it all solo?

KD: Most of my training has been solo or with some of my friends back home, but I have purposely tailored much of my training to be solo. I'm trying to get used to being out there for five or six hours on a bike alone. During the week I am working out with other people, but it is certainly a different kind of training.

ST: You're used to having other team members who you are accountable for. In contrast, triathlon is an individual sport. What is your thought process?

KD: I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the Navy so I am grateful for that and am trying to represent them as best I can. If I was just here for myself, it might be a little bit easier and a whole lot less pressure but I hope to do well by the Navy and represent well. Truly this is an individual effort and I'll be relying on myself to get through the day, no doubt about it.

ST: How were you chosen to compete in the jump and the race?

KD: I don't have the resume in the world of triathlon like some of the other SEALs - guys like Mitch Hall - and there were dozens of other SEALs out there who were probably better qualified than I was to do this race, but I was available and willing to do the jump. Some of the guys who are really competitive triathletes, not that they wouldn't do the jump, but that's not the way to PR at a race.

ST: What do your SEAL Team One guys think about you doing this event?

KD: I'll be honest, I tried to keep this on the down-low for a while and not advertise it too much but word gets out. I'm sure I'll get grief for spending the better part of the week in Hawaii while the Command is doing it's daily work, but they have been very supportive of me. I think, first of all, they all appreciate fitness in any form, and everyone recognizes that the Ironman is a very tough event. The difference is this week I'm doing Ironman but in a few weeks someone else will be doing a tough mountain bike race. So, they can appreciate that.

ST: The Superfrog is one of the oldest triathlons in the country and a Navy SEAL - John Dunbar - finished second in the very first Iron Man event. What does it feel like to be an integral part of the beginning of this growing sport?

KD: It feels terrific. This has to be the most in-shape town and island in the world on this given week. I commented to a couple of my Navy brothers that wouldn't it be nice if this was a reflection, and a cross-section of America, if we embraced physical fitness and health the way all of these athletes here do. It is really phenomenal to be a part of all that.

Editor’s Note: Keith Davids successfully completed both of his missions at the 2008 Ironman Hawaii. The Commander of SEAL Team ONE completed his first Ironman in 11:24:00 and crossed the finish line together with his SEAL brother Petty Officer 1st Class David Goggins.