A rappelling experience

Published 6:25 pm Tuesday, January 2, 2024

The trick to safely scale down Old Dominion University’s S.B. Ballard Stadium, which at its tallest point stands 94 feet or eight stories above the ground, is to lean back as if preparing to take a swan dive while holding onto your harness and rope.

“Then you take a step down,” said Smithfield High School Junior ROTC Cadet Kadence Distefano, who joined 60 of her classmates, ODU Army ROTC cadets and members of the Virginia Army National Guard’s 183rd Regiment Dec. 5 for rappel training.

Smithfield High rotates between Norfolk State University and ODU as its partner.

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According to Army Lt. Col. Brandon Shah, professor of military science at ODU, the Dec. 5 exercise was the first time since 2017 that Smithfield High had partnered with ODU for rappel training, and the first time since Ballard Stadium’s 2019 renovation. Smithfield High’s Junior ROTC program between the two universities for junior-senior Army ROTC programs, which pair high school cadets with their college counterparts.

The rappelling exercise is intended to help cadets conquer their fear of heights and master safe descent techniques.

“It was a little scary at first,” Distefano said.

Distefano, a self-proclaimed “thrill junkie,” has been a member of Smithfield High’s Junior ROTC program since the first day of her freshman year. Now she’s halfway through her junior year of high school and is contemplating participating in a senior ROTC once she goes off to college. Successful completion of a college-level ROTC program qualifies the student for commissioning as a military officer upon graduation.

Distefano’s father, Thomas, himself a Navy veteran and engineer, had to sign a permission form to allow her to undertake the training, as did the parents of all SHS students who participated in the ODU exercise.

This was Kadence’s second experience with rappelling. Over the summer, she’d attended an ROTC camp at Virginia Tech, which had involved practicing the proper technique on fences prior to attempting a higher descent.

Despite having more training than some of her classmates, the stadium roof was slippery and at one point Distefano lost her footing while getting into position.

“But then once I took my first step it was fine,” Distefano said.

Joint exercises involving junior and college-level ROTC programs are directed by the United States Army Cadet Command, which, according to Shah, governs high school and college ROTC programs across the nation.

“All of this goes in line with the USACC commanding general’s (Maj. Gen. Antonio Munera’s) priority to establish better working relationships between Senior and Junior ROTC units, which is coined ‘one ROTC culture,’” Shah said.