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Posted 6/18/2003 2:10 AM
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Fitness crusader gets 'em fired up
COLORADO SPRINGS Two firemen, both immovable human sequoias, watch in silence as a colleague picks up a 175-pound "Rescue Randy" dummy and sprints 100 feet backward.

"Way to go," says Denny Peffer, whose workout has laid a carpet of sweat on his Ken-doll chest.

R.C. Smith just shakes his head. "The triple whammy," he says.

The triple whammy: Juliet Draper, 36, is a woman, black and gay. She also is one of the fittest firefighters in the nation, poised to take on her brethren this fall at an international, ESPN-televised battlefest called the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge.

But Draper isn't just another buff body. She's a rescue worker with a mission to get her peers to shape up.

"I have opinions about certain things in the fire service," says Draper, who enlisted in the Army to escape a life of drugs on the streets of Cleveland. "I want to get my hands on the ball."

As summer's fire season nears, Draper knows she's getting into a game as divisive as it is deadly.

Despite the many perils firefighters face, the leading cause of death (44%) is heart attack, according to a recent study by the U.S. Fire Administration.

The response to this alarm has been patchy. Some firefighters have launched homegrown awareness campaigns, such as New York firefighter John VanWallendael's firefighter-fitness .com, which offers workout tips. But the International Association of Fire Fighters, while pushing a wellness program for its 260,000 members, stops short of calling for mandatory fitness tests.

"The unions are forever resistant to things that could be used to fire people, such as a yearly test," says Staci Stevens, CEO of exercise consultants Workwell Physiology Services in Ripon, Calif. "At every firehouse, there's an old guard and new guard. That's the battle."

IAFF spokesman George Burke dismisses the notion of a schism between hardbody recruits and lazy vets: "As for firemen eating and loafing, it's a legendary fantasy. Times have changed."

Some veterans report otherwise. "I've seen officers who can't buckle their seatbelts, and that's wrong," says Memphis firefighter Ray Glover, a personal trainer in his down time. "You eat, go to bed, and if you're not fighting a fire, you're hanging out."

Two years ago, Glover prepared a report that outlined how a basic fitness test and the addition of treadmills and weights to each firehouse could improve conditioning. "The bosses saw my point, but they said no," says Glover.

Studies hint that could be a mistake. Workwell analyzed a Lake Tahoe firehouse as it embraced a workout regime and found "there was a 400% reduction in lost time due to injury," Stevens says. "The department wound up saving money, and the firemen felt good. But to my surprise, no one else followed suit."

Enter Draper. Among firefighters increasingly dedicated to this campaign, she seems to have the guts and glamour to shake up a culture.

From AA to the Army

Draper's life has changed dramatically since she was a teen in Cleveland. She offers no excuses ("My parents loved me") for running off the tracks into the gutter.

Homeless and indulging in marijuana, crack and "almost every type of drug short of shooting up," Draper, then 22, finally sought treatment at Alcoholics Anonymous and, a few months later, joined the Army. Despite relapses, Draper persevered.

"Serious junkies are seriously determined to get what they want," she says. "So I just switched to the other side of that determined coin. Instead of looking for that 40-ounce beer, I went looking for that 400-pound squat."

Military power-lifting awards began piling up for Draper, who joined the Army's firefighting squad at Fort Carson, just south of Colorado Springs.

She felt complete.

"For once, it wasn't about sex or race, it was about rank," she says. "The Army is the great equalizer. That's where I learned I was a really capable person."

In 1996, she wrapped her Army stint and joined the Colorado Springs fire department. She made an impact in more ways than one.

"Let's just say we're a conservative organization, and this is a conservative town," says R.C. Smith, her commander at Fire Station One. "But she quickly became an informal leader because of the standards she set for herself. It motivated others. A lot of people here, including me, have started working out because of her. I'm sure she can make an impact with a broader audience."

That could well be at the Combat Challenge, slated for Nov. 7 in Ottawa. After winning her class in 1999, Draper took a few years off from the grueling contest to train her peers. Now she's back, part of a team consisting of Smith, Peffer and Stacy Billapando, and eager to blow some minds.

5 a.m. workouts

Tonight is pasta night at Station One, and Draper quickly dispenses with a heaping plate of spaghetti with meat sauce and a small salad.

She can afford a second helping: Thanks to days that start with 5 a.m. workouts, she can bench press 250 pounds, squat 350 and dead lift 425.

"I used to follow a bodybuilder-type routine, but now I'm looking more toward function," says Draper. "I'm getting older."

Sitting next to Draper is her partner of 10 years, Pamela Jones, a Jamaican-born dynamo.

Jones, 49, is a fixture at Station One, thanks to her stewardship of both the house's workout-oriented Web site (firejock.com) and Draper's burgeoning career.

She's on a crusade to make Draper the poster child (literally she sells birthday-suit-only images of Draper on the couple's Web site, rogueamazon.com) of the firefighter fitness movement, turning her into an Oprah-worthy celebrity (Jones, sister of singer Grace Jones, helped Draper cut a disco single) in the process.

"Her big message is that you can increase your level of fitness with your age, which goes for both firefighters and you and me," says Jones. "Although I'm chunky ..."

"Robust," Draper interjects.

"OK, robust, I'm still the strongest woman in the gym, thanks to working out," Jones says.

Draper's message is finding receptive ears: Police officers and bank officers alike e-mail her in search of fitness tips.

But while the city's top fire official is effusive in his praise for Draper ("We're talking about one of the best in the country, period," says fire chief Manuel Navarro), he draws the line at forcing firefighters to follow her lead. "They should be given the opportunity to train," says Navarro.

"I know it's a tough sell, but it's important," says Draper. "Firefighters don't just have stressful jobs, they have shorter lives. Life expectancy is six years past retirement. Why wouldn't you want to change that?"

Draper does, with a vengeance.

At a training complex east of town, her Combat Challenge team, minus a vacationing Billapando, gathers for a workout that would frighten an NFL lineman.

The challenge consists of carrying 45 pounds of hose to a fifth-floor platform; hoisting up from ground level, by rope, a second 45-pound bundle of hose; knocking a massive I-beam five feet with a sledgehammer; running through a series of cones; carrying 250 pounds of water-filled hose 75 feet and, finally, dragging "Rescue Randy" backward all while wearing 50 pounds of gear and breathing through a face mask.

Draper won with a time of 2:34. Last year's women's champ posted 2:27. "I'm shooting for sub-2 minutes," she says, banishing doubt.

For Draper, shattering the Combat Challenge record would mean a bigger podium from which to deliver her fit-lifestyle sermon, one she believes might save a fellow rescue worker's life or let someone enjoy a longer retirement.

And if the preachy approach doesn't prove convincing, there's always another way.

"Hey, our team is two chicks, one kind of fat guy and one old guy," Draper says, cracking another grin wide open and poking her finger out Uncle Sam-style. "So where were you?"