Fitness crusader gets 'em fired up
By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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