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Combat Challenge kicks off with wet, screaming crowd

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

A little girl under a big umbrella yelled for the firefighter to get up. She yelled, "Sheree! Sheree! Come on Sheree!"

Just a few feet from the finish line, Sheree slipped. And for a moment, she just lay there, looking up at the rain as it fell on the national Firefighter Combat Challenge race.

After charging up a five-story tower, towing a rope up, hand-over-hand, and running the obstacle course in the rain, Sheree almost didn't make it. Dragging a 175-pound training dummy backwards, the female firefighter was waddling under the weight. Sheree was almost across the course, on the last length of the six-challenge race, when she slipped and fell on her back.

"Oooooohhhhh," said the announcer into the cordless microphone. "She fel-l-l-l!"

His voice doubled through the speaker system, hitting the small, dedicated, plastic-poncho-wrapped crowd, in two waves. The crowd responded with cheers. The crowd shouted encouragement and Sheree's name, telling her to: "Get up! Get up!" and "Come on!"

The challenge is being held for the fourth year in Morrow, in the parking lot of the Home Depot, this weekend. The opening races were delayed for more than an hour, in hopes the rain would let up. The Clayton County fire chief, Alex Cohilas, said his chaplain is a Baptist and should be able to pray the storm away, but the rain just came in gusts.

While waiting, the crowd stayed under tents and the announcer made fun of the delay. "What?" he said to some of the firefighters, "are you made of sugar?"

The combat challenge is a rodeo for firefighters, the athletic event that fans like to label "the toughest two minutes in sports." And on Friday night in Morrow, it was wet and slippery, too. Hoses were half submerged, water sheeted across the course, and the rain came in at a heavy slant. But the race started anyway.

The competitors grabbed a roll of hose, and ran up the five-story tower. At the top of the tower, they hauled a wheel of hose up by a rope, and then they ran down again. At the bottom, they took a sledge hammer and beat a beam until it moved five feet. They sprinted around fake fire hydrants, grabbed a hose, and ran back to where they began, to shoot a stream of water at a little red target.

Then, for the last stretch, they each grabbed one of the dummies -- plastic-faced men who seem to be weighted with a gut full of stones -- and ran backwards toward the finish line.

Sheree, the first woman to cross the course, slipped right there. She got up and grabbed the dummy again, heaving and gasping and trying to pull the weight off the ground and go backwards, across the line. Then, she slipped a second time.

The crowd told her to get up, told her she was almost at the line. A little girl on the bleachers was bellowing "Sheree!" and two photographers moved in to take pictures, trying to find the firefighter's face with their lenses, but only snapping shots of rain and helmet.

"Sheree!" the little girl yelled, and Sheree got up a second time, and grabbed the dummy again. She pulled, inching it over the line.

The Firefighter Combat Challenge continues on today, starting at noon and going until the awards ceremony at 8 p.m. The event is free, and includes children's activities.