By Daniel Silliman
The world championship rings are in the mail.
Clayton County firefighters, over the age of 40, won the Firefighter Combat Challenge world championship for the second time in a row.
The five-person relay team raced through the challenge's obstacle course in Las Vegas last week, in one minute and 21 seconds, only a second slower than the world record time they set last year.
"Hands down, we cleaned up," said Assistant Chief Jeff Hood, a member of the winning relay team. Hood, Deputy Chief Jerry Russell, Capt. Jay Fordham, Sgt. Ernest Donaldson and Sgt. David Odum, who were were sized for their championship rings in Nevada, are expecting the trophy jewelry to arrive in the next six weeks.
The five won last year's challenge, and set the record time on the obstacle course, climbing, pulling hoses, carrying a training dummy and, generally, firefighting. They were beaent in this year's nationals by a team of firefighters from Oklahoma, and went into the Las Vegas competition hoping to defeat the Oklahoma team.
"They beat us in the nationals this year, and everybody thought they might clean up," Hood said. "But we practiced to make sure that wouldn't happen again."
Chief Alex Cohilas, who instituted the department's participation in the sporting event as part of a department-wide fitness program, said the over-40 team members displayed their abilities and determination when they bobbled a hand-off in the relay.
"They did not panic, when they made the mistake, and their experience really, really came through," Cohilas said. Fordham brought the team home during the training dummy drag, the chief said.
"There's not anybody in the world, in his age group, that can pull the dummy as fast as he can. He's so fast and so strong that it was all over, but the shouting. I was really proud of the old guys. They really show that age is just a number, if you keep your body in shape and you stay fit," Cohilas said.
While the competing firefighters were in Las Vegas, the rest of the department was running the course constructed behind the fire department headquarters, as part of their new, annual, minimum fitness requirement.
After getting gym equipment in the fire stations, a few years ago, and a test run through the obstacle course last year, Cohilas said he wanted every firefighter and paramedic to run through the course in under four minutes, as a yearly requirement.
The chief and assistant chief note that the No. 1 cause of death for firefighters isn't burns or smoke inhalation, but heart attacks. In the last year, Cohilas said, the department has collectively lost 3,000 pounds, as they've geared up for the test.
"We've noticed dramatic improvement with our department's physical fitness," he said. "We intensified our physical fitness efforts ... and I can point you to case after case after case, where firefighters have made a dramatic change in their lifestyle, and that's been the overall purpose of the initiative."
Personally, Cohilas hopes to improve his running time by 30 seconds this year, and said he's lost 25 pounds through a year of the training, making him healthier than he's been in a decade.
The younger firefighter-athletes also did well in the world challenge. The Under-40 relay team came in seventh, out of all the competing teams, according to Hood.
"The younger guys, I hate to say this, but it's true," Cohilas said, "they're probably the most talented team on the challenge, but they made a mistake under pressure."
Lt. Billy Rice, running the course alone, finished with a time of 104 seconds, nearing the elite, 100-second mark. Sgt. Antonio Johnson came in with a time of 94 seconds, "within six-tenths of a second of breaking into the top ten in the world," the chief said.
Cohilas said his firefighters are sore, right now, but will soon be working to bring home more trophies, improving the department's culture of physical fitness and distinguishing themselves among other firefighters.