I met John Zinn in the late 90s when we had both just completed our respective BUD/S classes and joined Team Three. I was standing in the middle of a class on advanced diving techniques while our instructor gave a safety brief, something about how to avoid getting sucked into giant turbines and turned into fish food, when I heard a Clint Eastwood voice rasp quietly behind me: “Everyone has to die someday…” I craned my neck just enough to look back, half expecting a scowling man with no name chewing on a cheroot. Instead, I found myself eyeballing a cherub-faced towhead cracking a faint smile. (A piece of human nature trivia I learned in the teams: The more time a guy spends in the water, the drier his sense of humor.)

John and I were both southern California surfers, and we hit it off right away. If your picture of a Navy SEAL is a big, chiseled, pro-football type with rippling muscles and a fuck-you glare, then you never would have pegged John as a SEAL. A slender five-eleven with sandy blond hair, an oval face, an affable smile, and quiet confidence, he looked like your average skinny surf bum. 

John was a competitive swimmer almost before he could walk. His first swim meet, at age five, was abysmal. The other kids dived into the water and swam to the end of the pool and back before John had even touched the other side. That was it for John: He never lost a meet again, and that capacity to take fuel from failure would become his signature gift.

The water was John’s passion and driving force. An excellent athlete, he played competitive water polo throughout his school years. During his senior year of high school, his dad took him to become scuba-certified, and John was so far ahead of everyone else in the tests that the instructors started calling him Neptune. He could have gone on to university on a water polo scholarship. But he wanted more than anything to join the Navy and become a SEAL. Four days after his high school graduation he was on his way to Great Lakes, Illinois, to attend Navy boot camp. He was barely 17. A year and a half later he was starting BUD/S.

John had no illusions about how tough the selection process would be, but he was determined to make it through no matter how hard it got. Of course, nobody goes into BUD/S planning to fail. Your first day on that asphalt grinder at Coronado you hear everyone around you saying, “Hey, man, no way I’m quitting!” And a few days later, as you drag yourself out of your bunk in the frigid predawn darkness, bruised and battered and beaten, and you hear the morning silence split by the bone-jarring clanggg, clanggg of that damn brass bell, you know another sorry-ass motherfucker has thrown in the towel. My class started with 220 candidates; by graduation, seven months later, there were 23 of us left. It’s easy to talk a big game, but when the reality of BUD/S starts to sink in, people crumble. Not John. He was so focused, so intent on plowing through and going straight into the SEALs, that it was impossible to imagine him not doing it. 

And yet, just as with that first swim meet at age five, his first time out he did fail.

BUD/S Class 205 began in December 1995. It was near the tail end of a record-length El Niño surge, and major storms were pummeling California. By the time the storms reached Hell Week, we had one of the coldest weeks on record. John ended up with pneumonia and was forced to call a halt.

Getting rolled from BUD/S just about killed him. It wasn’t the pneumonia — it was the blow to his ego. He wasted no time on self-recrimination, though. That fuel-from-failure thing again. It wasn’t the first time he’d suffered a bitter defeat on the way to triumph, and it sure as hell wouldn’t be the last. 

There’s a common idea in the Navy SEALs that says if you don’t make it through BUD/S on your first try, you need to go out and get some experience before you come back for a second shot at it. John decided to take a turn as a naval police officer. He wangled an assignment to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to go through a six-week training course, and upon graduating was assigned to police duty at the naval station in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. After 18 months of breaking up bar fights and keeping the peace, he showed up back in Coronado, ready to do BUD/S again. This time he went the distance, and graduated Class 217 in mid-’98, just a few months after I had finished Class 215.

As new guys at SEAL Team Three, John and I went surfing together as often as we could. We also shared an aspiration to become successful in business, and during our time together at Team Three, we talked a lot about being entrepreneurs and all that we wanted to accomplish in our lives. 

At the time I had begun investing in real estate and having some modest success to the extent that I owned my own home and rented out a guesthouse on the property. I’d studied Robert (Rich Dad, Poor Dad) Kiyosaki’s approach to building a portfolio of income-generating assets, and I was convinced real estate was the way to go. 

John wasn’t especially interested in real estate. He wanted to build something. He wanted to create and run his own business. Actually, that’s not saying it right: He didn’t just want to run his own business — it was more like a burning, all-consuming drive. He had to.

Right away I noticed that John had a distinctive quality of absolute confidence. When he talked about something happening in the future, it was so vivid, so real, you knew it would happen. A common experience for Navy SEALs is that once you have been part of this incredibly elite team, it can seem impossible to imagine that any other experience could come close. It is as if the path of achievement were, by definition, downhill from there onwards. That wasn’t John’s view at all. “I have bigger fish to fry,” was how he saw it. And he was 100 percent positive that he would build something that would become hugely successful. 

Figuring out exactly what that would be… that was another story.

This is Part I of a four-part series on Navy SEAL John Zinn. You can read Part II here.

This excerpt is from Brandon Webb & John Mann’s bestselling book, Among Heroes, available everywhere books are sold and on Amazon