Through the Fire: Firefighter/powerlifter seeks world record

By Jim Provenzano

If you're looking for an example of a driven and motivated athlete, look no further than Juliet Draper.

Already the second-highest ranked female competitor in the United States, Draper is aiming to break the two-minute record at the Nov. 11 World Firefighter Challenge Championships in Henderson, Nevada.

Held in various cities across North America, the competitions have sometimes been taped for broadcast on ESPN. In the competition, which originated from firefighter training drills, firefighters in full work outfits race up and down stair towers, swing axes, run obstacle courses, and drag fire hoses and dummy "victims" in solo, tandem, and team competitions.

Draper will compete in the individual events, although other members of her Colorado Springs, Colo., firehouse will also compete.

"It's pretty unique," says Draper. "Our audience is not huge, though. The bulk of our fan base is other firefighters and their families."

Draper's family is her partner, Pam Jones, a filmmaker. The two have been together for 15 years. Being the only African-American out lesbian in her department of more than 300 firefighters, Draper says she and her partner Jones have become well known in the conservative city. Yet they've experienced no problems.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Draper had aspirations of becoming a firefighter as a young girl. She says 1970s TV shows like "Emergency" and "The Rookies" were one source of inspiration.

"I had conversations with my dad (a retired postal worker) while watching those TV shows, telling him I wanted to be a firefighter or soldier. His response was 'You can do anything you want.' It never dawned on me that I couldn't do those things."

The same was not so for her father, who sought positions as a firefighter after his military service in the 1960s, but was never hired, even after passing the fitness test.

"My dad said, 'Well, they just weren't hiring black folks at the time,'" says Draper. "He wasn't bitter, but moved on. He was very encouraging."

After a few teenage years of drug abuse and personal problems, Draper turned her life around, joining the Army like her brothers.

There, she was trained as a firefighter and rescue specialist. From 1992 to 1994, Draper was stationed at Guantanamo Bay, aiding the Cuban and Haitian refugee effort. While stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, she continued her firefighting work, and met Jones.

"We were both at the same place for very different reasons," says Draper of their meeting at a Unitarian church. "This was during the Amendment 2 debacle." That 1992 state constitutional amendment prohibited any judicial action designed to protect LGBT rights. The amendment was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the "Romer v. Evans" decision of 1996.

"Pam was there working on protests about that," says Draper, "and I was there for an AA meeting. We were the only two black people in the room. She gave me her million-dollar smile and we became friends, then double-dated, and now, we've been together for 15 years."

Since then, the two have been inseparable. Draper often says "we" when discussing her workouts, as she credits Jones with assistance. Jones also happens to be the sister of singer Grace Jones, but they rarely see each other. "Grace does her thing, and we do ours," says Draper. "It's also the distance, geographically. We have very different lives."

A tradition in the firefighting community is to have a spouse visit the firehouse on occasion with baked goods, which Jones has done. "We get together at the Christmas party and other events with the expectation that it is our right."

The couple isn't any different than other firefighter families, and Draper says they haven't experienced any antigay problems with fellow firefighters. "We live our rights," she says. "We don't wait for them to be given to us. We just are who we are and walk in the door."

As one of only three African-American women in the Colorado Springs fire department, whose total employees number more than 300, Draper says minorities remain in the "single-digit status, perhaps 6 percent, maybe less."

Another aspect of being more visible in her community is that Draper often trains 20 minutes a day on a stair machine at her local gym in full uniform, which weighs 30-35 pounds.

"That's a big part of our training," she says. "We're going to keep that in the arsenal," as firefighters need to adapt to "having those pants that restrict your freedom of movement. It's really a different feeling. When I first came on the job, it was even heavier." Draper says that new uniforms made of lighter fabrics have improved flexibility. But in order to remain fireproof, some weight and thickness is required.

Despite what Draper calls "the danger and heart-wrenching days, I could not do anything else as enthusiastically."

Balancing the stress and exposure to toxic environments, Draper, like many of the new generation of firefighters, sees the advantages of a good diet and exercise. "I'm entertained by exercise, so that's always been a part of my life. Other people come to public safety from other backgrounds. Sometimes we do a lot of waiting." While some firefighters live a sedentary life between emergencies, Draper says more public safety workers are embracing a healthier lifestyle.

Even in her own city, Draper says, "We have some highly competitive powerlifters and some big strong men. The cops want to look good in their shirts. We get a lot of bodybuilder-style lifters."

Cutting her time in the individual events has long been a goal for Draper. "My first time in 1998, I came in second at 2:30," she says. "In 1999, I won at 2:17, and by 2003 got my time down to 2:03. The goal was always under two minutes, once the three-minute barrier was broken. This year, under two minutes is the big goal."

In order to qualify, male competitors have to perform the solo event in under 1:50. At the regional competition held this past June in Tyler, Texas, Draper completed the course in 1:48, outdoing many male competitors.

Few may have as devoted a partner as Draper does - she says Jones' training "is all-encompassing. Without her support I couldn't do this."

Jim Provenzano is the author of the novels PINS and Monkey Suits. Read more sports articles at http://www.sportscomplex.org. He can be reached care of this publication or at sportscomplex@qsyndicate.com.

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