Monday, August 28, 2017

Reflections on the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge®

Here you go Paul – thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts! Jim
Dr. Paul Davis, Conor Pietrangelo and B/C Jim Pietrangelo, Pouder Fire Authority, Ft. Collins, CO
Boy how the years fly by while working in the fire service. For those of you that have been around for awhile, you know what I’m talking about. I’m not sure it’s the 24-hour shift schedule, or the amazing things we get to do and see, or the camaraderie we experience with our brothers and sisters that create that perception. It was painfully obvious to my senses when I recently attended a regional Firefighter Combat Challenge (FCC) in Longmont, Colorado. The piercing sound of the warble starting horn, the distinct “clank” of the mallet hitting a Keiser beam, and most notably, the rapid rise of my heartbeat when I saw the SCBA staging tent; you know what I mean by that!

The last time I set foot on the sight of a Firefighter Combat Challenge event was 14 years ago in Ottawa. It was the world championships and I was interviewing competitors on the course for the television broadcast. Prior to firefighting, I worked in the television news business. I started competing in the FCC as a rookie with the Poudre Fire Authority (PFA) in Fort Collins in 1994. My first competition was at Rocks Community College in Denver, Colorado. The top individual times in the world then were near the lower 2- minute range. The stairs and tower were constructed from scaffolding by volunteers and were really steep! The Keiser Sled took 10-15 hits to move the beam the required distance. A warmed up mallet head helped move the beam faster along with a clean track (no bead dust from the mallet head). Running around the cones was not allowed. It kind of sounds like the old sob story our parents would tell us about their youth; walking 3 miles to school, uphill, while wading through 3 feet of snow and blizzards, etc., etc.! The course was truly more difficult back then and it took a couple of years to learn how to prepare for the “toughest two-minutes in sports”. I competed up until 2003 when injuries from a motorcycle wreck ended my run. That was a tough time for me as I somehow knew I would no longer be able to physically do the things I often took for granted.

The recent visit in Longmont brought back a lot of memories for me. The best memories will always center on the people I met and competed against. It was great to see Dr. Paul Davis again and to see that his vision for a world class competition is still going strong. He’s been a big supporter of the fire service for many years and has not aged a bit since the last time I saw him in Ottawa. Paul’s vision and drive to create something that showcased the fire service has helped strengthen relationships between firefighters and their communities. I’ll never forget the “senior” competitors like the friendly and funny Larry Vandenberg and the first 60-year-old world record holder, Roy Davis.

Watching them compete was simply inspiring. Competing against some of the best in the world was an honor. I ran against 3-time world champion Brian Spalding from Casper, Wyoming. I finally beat him in 1998 at a regional competition and most of the credit goes to him, Mike Vogt and the rest of the Casper team that mentored us back then. We had a great relationship with Casper because of PFA firefighter and one-time world champion, Dave Minchow. Dave used to work at Casper in the 1980s. I met Dave shortly after I graduated from the fire academy. I’ll never forget the phone call I received from him my rookie year, a week after I had graduated from the fire academy. He called me “Peter D’ Angelo” and challenged me to do the FCC with him that summer. I took him up on his offer and never regretted it.

Some other memories and people that come to mind during my challenge tenure; Mark Millward from Delta, BC “Men in Black”, drinking a beer prior to his run against me (and wouldn’t you know, he beat me) and kissing everyone on the cheek; beating Kevin Voyles in a 1998 regional only to find out after I crossed the finish line that I was penalized 2-seconds and had to settle for second place; watching Vince Rafferty from Colorado pick up Rescue Randy and carry it across the finish line; witnessing Juliet Draper’s world record run; the incredibly fast teams from Missoula and Overland Park; running into Ken Griffey Jr. in the elevator at the Vegas world championships in the MGM and mistaking him for a basketball player at UNLV; drinking with competitors at the Irish bar in Ybor City and introducing my teammates to the Hare Krishna on the street corner; hanging with Doug Hall and Bobby Russell from Overland Park; and finally, standing in that damn SCBA tent waiting to start my run against my competitor with my resting heartrate at 160! 

There were some difficult memories as well. The Line of Duty Death of Houston firefighter and FCC competitor Kimberly Smith, who was killed during a fire at a MacDonald’s restaurant in 2000. And Division Chief and two-time champion Brent Cooper of North Las Vegas who lost his battle with cancer in 2000, just a few months prior to the world championships in Las Vegas. 

The most profound memories for me will always surround the relationships that we made with our fellow firefighters and competitors. These were special friendships that were built through sharing the agony of training and competing for one of the toughest competitions around. Similar to the way we build relationships as a team when solving the most difficult emergency incidents we respond to. Unfortunately, as time passes by, we lose touch with those folks who’ve helped build those fond memories. For those of you still competing, hang on to those memories through documentation, photographs and phone calls to one another. Maybe Paul could host an “alumni” event of which would bring back some of the original competitors.

Every year I continue to mull over the possibility of coming back to compete again. Injuries and limited time to train for the FCC continue to push back on that dream. It seems my mid-life crisis rears its ugly head from time to time, wanting to show my 13-year old son, Connor, that with hard work comes success. He wasn’t born when I last competed, so I recently dug out some old VHS tapes that contained a number of my challenge runs. He asked if I would do it again and if I could win the 50-year old competition. I told him it wasn’t so much about wanting to win, but more about the journey it takes to cross the finish line; and sharing that feeling with others who have gone through a similar path of arduous training and focus to be the best that they can be.

Jim Pietrangelo
Battalion Chief
Poudre Fire Authority
Fort Collins, Colorado
FCC Competitor 1994-2003

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