Virginia Beach woman striving to join Coast Guard's elite rescue swimmers

Coast Guard Seaman Meredith Sieller is the first woman to successfully complete the Aviation Survival Technician conditional guarantee program for rescue swimmers at basic training at Camp May, N.J.


By LEE TOLLIVER | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: February 1, 2018

CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Meredith Sieller wants to be one of the Coast Guard's elite, the ones called on to perform unthinkable acts of bravery when someone's life is at stake. Like jumping out of a helicopter into rough, frigid waters some 30 feet below to save someone's life.

She's well on her way.

Sieller was chosen through the service's Annex X program designed to "identify Coast Guard recruit candidates who demonstrate exceptional potential to become rescue swimmers."

The 18-year-old is the first woman – all 5-foot-3 and 120 pounds of her – to advance to swim training via the program.

Already the Virginia Beach native has graduated from a rigorous boot camp in Cape May, N.J., where she was required to perform a set of standards above the average female Coast Guard recruit. She had to do double the running, swimming, sit-ups and push-ups in a required time frame, on top of regular boot camp training.

Sieller blew through the camp in just eight weeks – about the same time as a boot camp for a regular recruit.

"She is dedicated and fit, and absolutely driven for this," recruiter Ashley Coker said during a ceremony Thursday at Oak Grove Lake Park, where a group of Coasties meets every week for a run. "She exceeded every aspect of the training."

Sieller isn't new to swimming, but she confessed that she's never jumped from a high place into the water. She is a certified open-water swimmer who once swam the nearly 2-mile crossing from Alcatraz to San Francisco.

A former Virginia Beach Oceanfront lifeguard and member of the Tides Swim Team, she has a bucket list that includes crossing the English Channel (she's already qualified) and Chesapeake Bay. Her longest open-water swim has been 26 miles.

She wants to become the service's third active-duty female rescue swimmer. There are approximately 350 Coast Guard rescue swimmers around the world. Other branches of the military also have rescue swimmers.

"The thought of changing someone's life, saving their life, thrills me," Sieller said. "So I was immersed in all of the training."

The fact that she's a trailblazer in a program with so few women is just a side note, she said.

"After passing the initial exam and interview, then graduating from boot camp, I got the support of all my shipmates. That is extremely important to me," Sieller said. "But at no point did I have a different mindset because I'm a woman. I hold myself to the same standard as any potential rescue swimmer.

"I really look forward to the day when it's not about a female being special because she succeeds in a man's world, and we're all together simply for what we do."

Sieller's next step involves four months of rigorous training before she is allowed to advance to the service's Aviation Survival Technician/Rescue Swimmer School in Elizabeth City. Of several bases to train, she chose Kodiak, Alaska – arguably the most difficult duty station in the service branch because of its extreme conditions.

"I chose there because of the intensity of the cold water," she said. "I favor that and I wanted to train in the most extreme conditions possible. I figure if I can qualify for school there, everything after that will be much easier."

During media interviews Thursday morning, Coker said she advises all swim school candidates (only about two out of 10 advance) to have a solid Plan B.

Sieller balked.

"No, I have no Plan B," she said matter-of-factly. "I don't plan on failing."

©2018 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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