WINTER PARK, Fla. - Thirty-five teams of three and 21 individuals completed the 343 Hero Challenge this weekend, and hundreds more volunteered or came to cheer on the competing athletes.
For many, it was an emotional experience, as the event honors the 343 firefighter lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001.
It was the sixth year of the athletic competition, which combines CrossFit-style events with firefighter training implements.
Competing for the first time in an event like this was a team from News 6 -- executive producer Tara Evans, reporter James Sparvero and his brother, Rick Sparvero.
I had been looking forward to this event since I first heard about it. I initially struggled a bit with whether to actually sign up or serve as a volunteer, mainly because although I compete in powerlifting and strongman competitions, I really excel more at strength movements where I stand still, or don’t have to run. You know, the less cardio the better.
But I really can’t resist a physical challenge, and as I’ve written previously, this cause means so much to me that in the end, the choice was clear. Also, Orange County Fire Rescue Department’s lead public information officer Carrie Proudfit wasn’t going to let me off the hook, anyway. I would compete and I would team up with the Sparvero brothers.
None of us have competed together before, nor do we do workouts like this regularly. Our training is quite different. Still, we couldn’t wait.
The atmosphere was amazing. Everything from the opening ceremonies to the very end of the competition was touching. If you’ve never been to a strength sport competition, one of the things I love most about them is the support all the athletes give each other. You don’t need to know who is out on the floor to root for them. Sure, we’re competitive, we each want to win -- but we also want to see everyone else do well. I can’t tell you how many people I screamed for and cheered on that I’ve never seen before in my life and may never see again. And we got the same support in return.
Now imagine pairing that with the brotherhood and sisterhood that the firefighters have. It wasn’t just firefighters from OCFRD competing -- I saw firefighters from Clermont, Winter Park, Ocala, Winter Garden -- and more. The atmosphere is electric.
Our team first completed the skills section. Of course, we’ve never worked with some of these implements -- I’ve never opened a fire hydrant before. That was pretty cool and just a small taste of what our firefighters have to be able to do on the daily. We were feeling good -- kind of like a unique warm-up.
We had a few hours to go before we’d hit the floor for the three main workouts, so we spent the time relaxing, cheering other athletes on, meeting people and chatting.
We got suited up in our bunker gear for 3 minutes, 43 seconds of box step-ups, to simulate the climb at the World Trade Center firefighters did that day. To kick off that part of the event, they played part of the dispatch call that went over the radio in New York City that morning. I immediately teared up. It’s not just some step-ups at that point -- you’re looking at images of the attack on the wall, and you’re hearing that call -- it’s hard not to be overcome with emotion. But still, we climbed, with Lt. Willis yelling encouragement every step of the way.
Then we ran. Running with a stretcher with 100-plus lbs. on it along with two men that are 6 feet 5 inches when when you’re 5 feet 3 inches is definitely a challenge. Coming back inside, a combined total of 100 reps of shoulders-to-overhead for the men and deadlifts for the women at 115 lbs.
But it got more difficult from there: twenty synchronized burpees, 60 squats holding either 50- or 75-lb. sandbags, bear crawls, fire hose rolling, 40 reps of 115- or 75 lbs. sandbags over the shoulder, hose or sandbag carry, then 450-lb. sled pull -- all with the goal of having the fastest time.
It was hard, for even the most seasoned athletes. Surprisingly, the box steps weren’t that bad for me, even with the bunker gear. However, once we started running, that’s when it got real. There were several times I thought about tapping out, I even think I probably verbalized it a few times, but I couldn’t quit.
We signed up to honor those first responders on 9/11. They weren’t prepared for what they were getting into that day and for those that survived, all the days that followed. It was probably extremely taxing in a way I can’t even comprehend, and yet they still did it. So I was going to finish. And finish we did: We even managed to finish 30 out of 35.
I was a little ill-prepared for the amount of cardio the main workouts were going to have. I knew going in this could be the case, and I even joked at some point that if I were to have any sort of issue, no better place to have one than surrounded by Orange County’s Bravest, right? At the time, I didn’t really mean it to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but as it turned out, I think I’m the only athlete who ended up requiring some medical attention that day. At first, I was extremely embarrassed that immediately upon completing the workouts, I overheated so much I couldn’t see properly, thought I would pass out or maybe throw up -- that didn’t happen, luckily. Add a panic attack in, and we had a party! I was lucky enough to be helped out by several of the OCFRD crew members working the event -- including Assistant Chief Mike Howe, paramedic Donald Chaples and firefighters Doss Bozeman, Jared Greenaway and Edward Pitt. The kindness they showed me, along with the support and encouragement, meant so much. I got to see a little bit of the care they give people in Orange County every day, and for that I am thankful.
Long story still long, this was one of the coolest events I have ever had the honor of participating in. The heart that everyone showed is truly inspirational. The camaraderie, the kindness, the spirit… this is what I remember of New Yorkers in the days following the 9/11 attacks.
It is truly an event I will remember for a long time, and I cannot wait to participate next year … perhaps with some better cardio training.
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