Extra pounds aren't handicap in ESPN `firefight'


They all have two names -- the one on their uniform and the one they've acquired in the years since first putting on the uniform.

Denny Peffer, who runs the Leadville 100 and the Pikes Peak Marathon, is "Ironman." Tall, blond Stacy Billapando is "Viking Princess."

Juliet Draper is "The Girl," so named because when she joined the Colorado Springs Fire Department in 1997, she was one of three women.

Then there's Battalion Chief R.C. Smith.

He's the Fatman.

"I'm a big guy," Smith says matter-of-factly. "I'm the biggest guy in the station."

There's no denying Station 1's Smith is a large fellow. At 6 feet tall, he weighs 280 pounds -- and maybe not all of it is muscle.

But that's not stopping him from plunging into an arena populated by the most elite in his field, an event ESPN calls "the toughest two minutes in professional sports."

That's the Combat Challenge, a grueling competition in which firefighters race against each other and the clock to finish five tasks, including climbing a five-story tower, hauling hose and dragging a 175-pound dummy to the finish line.

It's also become a vehicle for Smith to demonstrate this point: A fat man can be a fit one.

"Appearance is in no way connected to performance," said Smith, who participated in his first Combat Challenge last month and plans to go again next year.

His coach, fellow firefighter/paramedic Draper, agrees. "People equate thinness with healthiness," said Draper, who won the World Combat Challenge for women in 1999. But it's not a good gauge, she said.

"R.C. is an example of that. I'm an example of that," said the muscular Draper, who stands 5 feet 9 inches and weighs in the 180s.

Rather than focus on the numbers, she said people should pay attention to their strength and functionality.

"I can't tell you how many thin people can't curl 10 pounds," she said.

Her message to Smith: "Don't let the roundness concern you," she tells him. It doesn't. It never has.

The oldest child in his family, he said he was doted on by his parents and three uncles thrilled with the fact they had a nephew.

"Being the oldest child, you're a pretty baby no matter what you look like," he said. The self-confidence took root.

"I've never felt that being overweight was limiting," Smith said.

But it does bother him that so many people, especially women, allow it to limit themselves, comparing themselves to models with the physiques of adolescent boys.

"How often is that naturally occurring?" he said. "People just aren't built that way. Some how our perception of beauty is it has to be Twiggy with breasts. Who invented that? You watch women torture themselves over it."

That's not Smith's style, especially not in a station where the food never stops.

"I just don't struggle," Smith says cheerfully as he tucks into a plate of Firefighter Walter Stupnik's chicken-and-sour cream enchiladas. At least not when it comes to eating -- but he did his share of struggling when he first decided to enter the 2002 Combat Challenge and started training.

The first time he tried running to the top of a five-story tower and back down, he ended up doubled over, blue in the face.

"R.C. almost threw up," said Peffer, a fire fighter and paramedic from Station 18, who also is a rookie in the competition.

By November, Smith had improved so much he completed the competition in 2 minutes and 43 seconds. The winning times are less than 2 minutes.

With Draper and Billapando on his side, Smith is in good hands.

Draper won the female World Combat

Challenge Championship in 1999. Billapando, who works at Station 11, placed third in 2001 and 2002 and was the top American finisher this year.

Draper's goal is for Smith to finish next year in 2 minutes and 15 seconds.

He can accomplish that, she said.

"He's born for this event," she said.

Reproduced with the permission of the Gazette