By Austin Spearman
Drenched in sweat and in 80 pounds of gear, a firefighter makes a mad dash up four flights of stairs. This exhausting sprint is followed by hoisting a 45-pound hose up to the top of the stairs. The fun doesn’t end there.
This test of mental and physical fitness isn’t a typical relay race. This is the world of FireFit.
The competition is usually reserved for those whose full-time job is firefighting, but in the city of Sarnia there is a dynasty in the making. Lambton College has managed to podium in either the individual or team categories every competition over the past three years. The small but mighty college team has been able to take firefighters-in-training and turn them into FireFit phenomenons.
Coach Sue Patrick has created a winning atmosphere that has allowed for Lambton to dominate the FireFit scene.
“We are one of the best fire[fighting] schools in Canada,”says Patrick.
Lambton houses a state-of-the-art fire science facility that replicates the feel of a fire hall. The training towers allow the athletes to practice real life scenarios while preparing them for competition at the same time.
“There isn’t even another college in Ontario that even comes close in either program or facility.”– Sue Patrick, Lambton FireFit Coach
Their training begins in February with workouts focusing on the athlete’s power and strength. The athletes shift to learning the skills for competition at the firehouse in May, according to Patrick.
“It’s like training to die, because that’s what it feels like at the end of the course. They are almost down to their last electrolyte, it’s pretty intense,” says Patrick.
These collegiate athletes aren’t just competing with their peers; Lambton is only one of two colleges who take part in the national competition. This presents these firefighters-in-training with the chance to not only take on the best, but to learn from them as well.
Over the years Lambton has racked up quite the trophy case as they’ve competed against the rest of Canada and the world. Since 2013. Lambton College has won two Rookie of the Year awards, bronze and gold medals at the Combat Challenge in Alabama, and two silvers and a gold at the Canadian championships. In 2013, they won it all in Vegas, reaching first place in the World Championship men’s relay race.
Outside of team success, Lambton has seen their fair share of individual brilliance over the years. Lambton athletes have been on Canadian all-star teams that won world titles. Patrick says both the team and individual successes have been a product of a winning culture mixed with the best young talent available.
“We get the best students here, students who want to be firefighters. A lot of them acknowledge that this is the place to be,” says Patrick.
“There isn’t even another college in Ontario that even comes close in either program or facility.”
Year after year, even with a changing roster, Lambton has managed to stay dominant. Patrick chalks it up to the strong personal that her team has had over her tenure. Former members of the Lambton Lions hold FireFit world records.
“Some of the best athletes in the world are former Lambton college graduates,” says Patrick.
Many FireFit competitors have extensive backgrounds in other sports. Sarah Goodman, a former OCAA basketball player, made her switch into the world of FireFit last year. In only her second year of competition, Goodman has been named team captain, beaten the course in under three minutes , and lead her women’s team to a silver medal at the national championships. When the current paramedic student is at the starting line, she says she has only one thing on her mind.
“Just finish,” says Goodman.
That mindset is a necessity when competing in the dead heat of summer in what could be described as an 80-pound snowsuit.
The gear, combined with the air intake, leaves competitors feeling like they’re breathing through a straw. It’s a recipe for pure exhaustion.
A FireFit race begins with picking up a 45-pound bundle and racing upstairs. Another 45 pounds await competitors in the form of a hose hoist. In order to conserve energy, athletes like Goodman have to use their whole body in these weight challenges. It saves their arms from burning out.
Next on the course is the forcible entrance. In comparison to the first two legs, Goodman says, it’s a walk in the park. A 10-pound mallet — which feels like a feather in comparison to the hose — is used to hit a metal sled down a track.
Up next, competitors race to a hose on the other side of the course. Then, they must go all the way back to hit a target before the final leg of the competition begins.
Adrenaline is flowing at the finish line, where a 165-pound mannequin “victim” waits for rescue. Goodman says you just have to mentally tell yourself you’re going to be okay or you won’t do it. The last task on the course ends in pure relief as athletes collapse at the finish line.
“It’s like, ‘Thank God! I did it,’”she says.
What sets this sport apart from others is the community attached to it. There won’t be any chirping or trash-talking on the athletes’ watch.
Goodman says they prefer to encourage and cheer on the competition. For these college students, the competition is also an excellent place to network and make friends in the industry.
“Everyone’s a family and everyone wants to see each other better themselves,” says Goodman.
At nationals, this was on full display when Goodman faced off against a firefighter from Fort McMurray. Before the race began, the competitors set their goal. They wanted to finish the run in under three minutes. They pushed each other along the race to hit that mark.
Goodman crossed the line with a time of 2:58 and accomplished a goal she set out at the start of her FireFit journey two years ago.
As it stands, Lambton College and Fleming College are the only OCAA schools to compete in this ever-growing sport. The Lions will look to add to their FireFit trophy case next fall when they host the Western Ontario regional finals in September.