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A typical SEAL? Think 007, not Rambo

CORONADO, Calif. -- The world looks very different from forty feet up, hanging onto a rope wall.  My advice?  Don't look down.

A lot of phenomenally fit people, including world-famous athletes and Olympians, have frozen at the top of the wall, which is part of the legendary obstacle course on the Navy SEAL base here in Coronado. Who knew that vertigo routinely kicks in at forty feet without a safety net?

SEALs have a reputation as the fittest and most fearless of the military's special forces.  Their legend grew even more after SEAL sharpshooters -- firing from a heaving ship at dusk -- killed three Somali pirates and freed Captain Richard Phillips after his ship had been hijacked in the Indian Ocean last year.

When I traveled to Coronado the day after the operation against the pirates, the SEALs' reactions were consistently matter-of-fact.  "It's what we're trained to do," was a typical response.

Video: From high-tech weapons and underwater demolition to hand-to-hand combat and parachuting into war zones, NBC's Chris Jansing takes a look at the making of a Navy SEAL.

And that's what started my nine-month quest to find out what makes these guys tick. 

The grueling physical challenges of SEAL training -- while fascinating to watch as long as you're not doing it -- didn't surprise.  A couple of things did. One was the amount of mental challenges thrown at the SEAL candidates every day.  As one told me, "They tell us from day one that it's 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. And you don't always believe that, but being here now, I'd say that's definitely the truth." 

'They're all studs'
An instructor put it another way: "They're all studs," he said of the 18-to-28-year-old men who report for training. But often it's the super-studs who are the first to drop out.

And that leads to the second surprise. You think SEALs look like Rambo? They don't -- think more along the lines of Daniel Craig's James Bond. The average size of a SEAL is probably 5ft.-10, 175 pounds.

Video: NBC's Chris Jansing talks to the women behind the SEALs.

The Navy commissioned Gallup to look at almost 8,000 attempts to get through the key SEAL training, known as BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL).  It turned up very interesting findings about who's most likely to succeed.  The sweet spot?  Twenty-two to 25-year-olds, college educated, and NOT from glamour sports (football, basketball and baseball players don't do any better than non-athletes).

Who does? Water polo players are number one.  Triathletes, lacrosse players, boxers, rugby players, swimmers and wrestlers, in that order, also fit the bill.  Endurance sports are great predictors of success:  mountain biking, climbing and rappelling, skiing and snowboarding.  The study has helped the Navy re-make recruiting.

The man behind many of the SEALs' recruiting innovations, Captain Duncan Smith, also has been looking to a totally new group: young men who probably never considered a military career. High on the Navy's list are Arab-Americans and those whose families hail from such countries as the Ukraine or Kenya. They're looking for young men with cultural backgrounds and language skills that will help them blend in wherever SEALs operate. The challenge? Finding an incredibly fit, intelligent, fearless 23-year-old American who also happens to speaks Swahili.
 
World hotspots
The SEALs I met can't seem to get enough of being SEALs. They're patriots, yes, but as one told me, most of all they love to be where the action is. And Iraq and Afghanistan and other dangerous hotspots around the globe are their playing fields.

A Master Chief -- that's the highest rank for an enlisted SEAL -- put it this way:  "What is it like? It's the best thing in the world. It's life on steroids.  Everything's fast. Everything's exaggerated. … Everything is just extreme with us. That's what it's like. And I'm saying it's a good thing."