By Daniel Silliman
It started when she put on the jacket. Or maybe it started earlier than that, but when she put on the jacket she knew.
It belonged to her uncle, a firefighter in Denver, Colo., and it was too big for her 15-year-old shoulders, but she thought it felt right.
"That's when I said, 'I want to be a firefighter," said Kelli Duncan, who is, now, a firefighter with the Clayton County Fire Department. It wasn't a passing comment, though, and it wasn't a joke. She said, "I'm not going to let anything stop me. I want to be a firefighter."
Her family - dad, mom, a younger sister, and her firefighter-uncle - said, "OK," and they've supported her from that day through the day last week when they watched her graduate from the fire department's 12-week academy at the top of her class.
Duncan was given the "Top Rung Award," presented to the student who displays leadership, positive attitude and team-building skills.
"During the graduation, my family was very emotional," Duncan said. "They knew I was not a quitter."
When Duncan came down to the fire department from her parents' home in Marietta, the first thing she did was fill out paperwork. They called her back and she drove down again and they had her and other recruits run through the Fire Fighter Challenge Course built on the hill behind the headquarters on Ga. Highway 85.
Called "The Toughest Two Minutes in Sports" by ESPN, Duncan ran through the course, swinging a hammer, running with a spraying hose, running up and down a tower and finally, dragging a 175-pound dummy the length of the course.
"I've always learned not to say, 'I can't.' So I never really thought about quitting," Duncan said. "There was a moment, from that day [running the challenge course] when I was dragging the 175-pound dummy - one of the instructors said, 'I know you want this.'"
And she knew she did.
Duncan said that while she never thought about quitting, she did get nervous. She called her uncle every week for advice. Before climbing the department's tallest ladder, she called him.
"He said to look straight through. Only look up occasionally and never ever look down," Duncan said. "He told me to stay focused and study and don't be afraid."
Duncan started working this week at station No. 4 on the B shift. She likes the fact that the Clayton department is family orientated. Duncan noticed that with the other recruits in the academy and said it's apparent at the fire station.
"They just made me feel welcome. It was just different here. I felt like I could emotionally connect here," Duncan said. "Chief [Alex] Cohilas, the recruits, the instructors, everybody just gave me a chance."