McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Sandy Overly has spent her entire adult life coaching athletes, including herself and her family.

This Ironman triathlete has been a personal trainer, fitness facility owner, swim instructor and certified triathlon coach for years. But she says she has never met a more dedicated and committed group of students than the dozen U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and Border Patrol agents to whom she has given private water lessons this past year.

Overly, 58, said she had actually retired from a life of training and coaching, but a CBP officer asked her if she would help him shore up his water skills in August 2018. Two days later, another guy called, and then another one, and by last fall she had helped a dozen agents.

Most of her students — who pay her for private lessons ranging from 50 minutes to two hours — are seeking to improve their swimming and deep-water skills to qualify for two types of specialized and highly selective tactical units within CBP: Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue (BORSTAR); and the elite Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC).

  • The Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue (BORSTAR) unit is the only national law enforcement search and rescue entity with the capability to conduct tactical medical, search and rescue training for federal, state, local and international government agencies, according to the CBP.
  • The Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) is an El Paso-based unit that trains in the United States and abroad for high-risk incidents. Officers must be physically skilled in several disciplines, including swimming certain distances in a set time, and treading water in full uniform and boots for several minutes while holding various objects. In addition, those who qualify for this unit must also be trained marksmen, swift runners and be able to quickly hike many kilometers with weighted backpacks. BORTAC was formed in 1984 and has evolved to include intelligence; reconnaissance and surveillance; foreign law enforcement/Border Patrol capacity building; airmobile operations; maritime operations; and precision marksman/observer, according to a CBP website.

In order to make this unit, officers must pass a “rigorous” monthlong selection and training course that begins in mid-October in El Paso, Overly said. The course is mirrored like those taken on by candidates for U.S. Special Operations Forces and includes running, shooting, rucking (hiking with a heavy backpack), swimming, treading water, and “drown-proofing,” according to a CBP website.

Overly works with agents and officers to help them feel comfortable in deep-water situations when they are fatigued and out of breath and strength, and she teaches them how to better understand their individual bodies in a water environment to keep them calm and focused when they are in the field.

“If they have mentally prepared for their physical expectations then when it comes time to be out in the field and react to something they don’t have to think about what they’re capable of and how to do it. It becomes an automatic reaction. Their body already knows how to go into that automatic mode,” she said on Saturday as she worked with two officers in the deep-end of a McAllen city pool.

Running underwater with a 10 lb. brick

In the bottom of a pool 10 feet deep, the officers ran laps holding a 10-pound brick. Whenever they needed air, they could leav the brick on the pool bottom and surface. But then they had to return to it and continue the underwater run.

They repeated this exercise several times, along with jump squats on the pool floor. They also tread water while passing objects, like pull buoys, and were made to perform tasks at the same time, like taking their goggles on and off and switching directions.

Border Report was allowed to watch Saturday’s practice, and even tread and train in the water to experience it with the officers, but we were not allowed to photograph their faces, quote them by name or write specifically about them.

One officer had just come off a 10-hour overnight shift and said these private lessons have really helped to boost his strength and knowledge in the water. This includes helping with human rescues in the Rio Grande and retrieving narcotics that drug runners that dump in the river.

“These guys run a seven-minute mile, they have that comfort, but you take somebody and put them in the water and tell them to go to the bottom of the deep end, they don’t know initially how much air to let out and how much to bring up,” said Overly as she worked with them to slow and calm their breathing and gave them tips on floating by using less energy.

“I’ve found them to be incredibly selfless dedicated individuals that have very high goals for themselves personally and professionally, and I have a lot of respect for everything they go through in order to achieve those goals,” Overly said. “The general public really doesn’t know very much about these elite teams that are another arm of Border Patrol and our United States Customs and Border Protection.”

Often called CBP’s equivalent of the Navy’s SEALS, BORTAC is “rigorous” and “demanding,” she said, adding that she has never had a female agent approach her for training help.

One of her students successfully completed BORSTAR training and is on the BORSTAR tactical team, she said. But that is pretty much all she knows about what he does.

“They don’t disclose anything to me they shouldn’t and I totally respect that,” she said. “I understand they don’t have the privilege to speak about their jobs … They are law enforcement officers, like our military, DPS, sheriffs. They put their lives on the line for their job in order to protect the citizens and in order to protect our borders.”

Striving for an elite force

Because of such secrecy associated with these units, in order to begin training them, at first, she said she scoured the Internet searching for YouTube videos and any other instructional material that could help her to plan lessons for them.

The second student whom Overly trained had missed the required BORSTAR swim time by four seconds when he came to her for help. The next time around, when he repeated the course, he aced the swim and came in with 40 seconds to spare, she said.

“When I started working with all these guys they were so committed and they so much wanted to be prepared. They were so trainable and so coach able,” she said.

A lifetime of fitness

As a USA Triathlon certified coach, Overly has coached hundreds of athletes over the decades. This includes her son and daughter, who both were on their college or university’s triathlete team. Her son was on the Westpoint team. Her daughter, Savana Overly, was on the University of Arizona triathlon team.

Savana Overly now volunteers on the Douglas County Colorado Search and Rescue sheriff’s department unit. In fact, it was at the time that she was training for this that Sandy Overly was approached by a Border Patrol agent about helping him to train her. She said that seeing all that her daughter was going through to prepare for her certification and testing made her more sympathetic to offer lessons to these local agents.

Sandy Overly has completed an Ironman triathlon and three half-Ironman triathlons and 95 other triathlons in her lifetime. In 2014, she and her daughter represented Team USA at the 2014 ITU Triathlon Sprint World Championships in Canada.

Coming out of retirement, for however long they need her, she says is an honor.

“My goal is to uplift all of our law enforcement. I get so tired of the politics. These guys are so selfless. They’re just trying to serve their jobs and our community,” Overly said. “That’s why I do it.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at

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