FBI fitness instructor guides students down the 'Yellow Brick Road'

Monday - 4/16/2012, 2:33am EDT

E.J. O'Malley, health and fitness instructor, FBI National Academy

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Staying healthy means everything to E.J. O'Malley, a seven-year health and fitness instructor at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.

"It never really sunk in until I had kids, or until I became married, that I have to be around for a long time," O'Malley said. "The choices I make, just like my students, they have to make better choices if they want to retire healthy."

Four times a year, law enforcement professionals from across the U.S. and around the world converge on the FBI's training facilities at the Quantico Marine Corps Base for the National Academy, a 10-week course of study in criminal investigative techniques.

The National Academy, which has been around since 1935, includes a comprehensive health and fitness program that combines both in-class instruction and physical training in the gym and on the track. This is where O'Malley plies his trade.

"This is one of the greatest gigs, in my opinion, because we can talk about the science, we can talk about the application and then we do," O'Malley said. "So, ‘tell, show, do' has always been my philosophy. It's an unique, educational environment here that we talk about what we do before we do it."

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National Academy students tend to be management level or above and their levels of physical fitness vary. One of the first things O'Malley and his fellow instructors do is meet with each student and set specific but attainable goals for each student's 10-week stay.

"I think the individual sit-down is crucial because we have students in their 40s and 50s in a classroom environment, so they have a unique opportunity here," he said. "There's not much else to do besides learn and network and then train. So, most of the goals we get are cardiovascular or strength-related and that's going to help them when they get back home."

The Academy's fitness program culminates in a grueling 6.1-mile obstacle course nicknamed the "Yellow Brick Road." At the end of the program, students tackle the wooded, hilly path, overcoming rock walls, barbed wire, cargo nets and muddy water. The path is decorated with yellow-brick mile markers — hence the name — placed their by the Marines.

The Academy has been awarding yellow bricks to students who successfully complete the program and the obstacle course since 1988. The bricks become prized souvenirs for graduates.

"My job is two-fold," O'Malley said. "We focus on research-driven material and then we go apply it. So those two happen every day, every week, every month, every year, but we try to stress that we want to bring the best research to the table for our law enforcement officers and then how do we carry it over to the gym, the track, the field, the mats, wherever we decide to apply what we have learned."

For the last seven years, E.J. O'Malley has been a health and fitness instructor at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. (Photo by Michael O'Connell)

Originally from Tunkhannock, Pa., O'Malley graduated from Lock Haven University, where he studied physical training. He later earned a master's degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and went on to work as a strength and conditioning coach in the Milwaukee Brewers' minor league system.

"I kept in touch with my undergrad professor and she sent me an email saying would I enjoy a position at the FBI as an instructor?" he said. "I never knew this job existed, so, without her, I never would've followed through on any of this."

In a typical day, O'Malley balances his instruction between in-class research and execution in the field.

"The easiest part for us is the training modality, where we go down to the gym and use all sorts of toys to get people better," O'Malley said. "The challenging part for us as instructors is giving our students a home run message in 30 to 45 minutes up in the classroom."

As career law enforcement professionals, O'Malley's students bring their wealth of experience to the classroom, but most of them know little about health and fitness.

"A lot of people are misinformed," he said. "Our job is to really separate the old school from the new school and try to find a middle ground."

Though it may seem O'Malley is paid to play, he takes his job seriously.

"The number one thing we're worried about is just injury reduction," he said. "I don't like to say prevention because I can't prevent anything in a fight, in a sport, but I can reduce injuries if I do the right things at the right time."

After 15 years as a health and fitness professional, O'Malley finds the Academy to be an inspiring and motivational place to work, mostly because of the people he interacts with on a daily basis.

"They're the best of the best in law enforcement, not only domestic but international, and, I think, that's what inspires me more than anything else," he said. "These people are the ones that protect my family. With that in mind, coming to work every day and showing energy and enthusiasm is very easy to do considering what they do in their respective jobs."