The walls crumbled around Melinda Metten. A deep orange glow beckoned from the end of the hall, black dust swirling in a doorway like a gaping mouth to hell. The thick air sizzled and snapped, embers flicking her way like a serpent’s tongue. She pressed forward.

Drawing from the 30-minute supply of oxygen filtering from a small tank on her back through her face mask, Metten inhaled the oppressive heat. She picked up her tool, a long spear-like baton with two curved prongs at the end, and heaved it over her shoulder into the ceiling. Sparks flew as she wrenched the hook down, sending fragments of glowing plaster and sheetrock cascading to the floor.

“We call it overhaul,” Metten, a firefighter of 14 years, explained. “We’re pulling the ceiling down to see if there’s any extension, if there’s any fire in there, so we can put it out.”

The work is grueling.

“Think of the worst possible thruster that you could do, with a pack on your back and helmet,” she said. “And maybe you’re wet a little bit from the hose, and you’re working. Doing work pulling ceilings.”

It’s a good thing she’s fit. When the 35-year-old isn’t fighting fires — or refueling planes tens of thousands of feet in the air as a boom operator for the United States Air National Guard — she trains and coaches at CrossFit Bangor, the affiliate she opened in 2011 in Bangor, Maine. And over the next five weeks, she will fight to reprise her 2015 role as the Fittest Woman in Maine in the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games Open.

“Now that I’ve done it, I’d kind of like to defend that title,” she said.

Finding Her Place

Metten grew up in Anson, Maine, a rural mill town with fewer than 3,000 people and just one stoplight. Sandwiched between two older and three younger brothers, she was a self-described tomboy. The siblings spent their evenings playing kick the can and hide-and-seek after riding their bikes the three miles to and from school.

“And of course you raced your friends to see who’d get there first,” Metten said.

She always wanted to be just like her dad, Dan Caldwell, who was Anson Fire Department’s chief from 1990–1995 (he served 35 years total). As at home in the firehouse as she was in her backyard, Metten tagged along with him in the truck when he responded to calls, “before that was illegal,” Metten said. “He’d just sit me there and say, ‘Don’t touch anything,’ and go fight the fire and come back.”

Her dad was strong, and she wanted to be strong too. She did push-ups in the attic, and on her 10th Christmas morning, she unwrapped a pint-sized bench, rack, barbell and plastic weights filled with sand.

“I thought that if I bench pressed I’d be super strong, and besides, it made me super cool,” she recalled. “I thought I was pretty bad-ass.”

A star sweeper on her high school soccer team, Metten thought she’d be a prized player when she arrived at Franklin Pierce University (then, Franklin Pierce College) in Rindge, New Hampshire. But after a semester of spending more time on the bench than the field — and after coming down with a serious case of homesickness — she transferred to Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor to be closer to family and follow in her father’s footsteps. She enrolled in the college’s fire science program.

On September 11, 2001, Metten knew she’d made the right choice. She was taking her final written exam when the plane hit the first tower.

“The day I was getting my job was the day that there were guys that didn’t get to go home to their family,” she said. “That totally solidified it for me that I was exactly where I needed to be.”

Metten fought fire for the next five years before taking military leave to attend boot camp in 2006, eventually joining the United States Air National Guard as a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker mechanic. She battled blazes between missions.

“To serve your country is amazing. It’s very gratifying,” she said. “It’s amazing to think that you can contribute to the larger cause.”

Throughout the years, she never forgot the words her father spoke when she phoned him from New Hampshire to say she was coming home.

“He was like, ‘OK, if you want to be a firefighter that’s great, but don’t expect them to change the job for you,’” she recalled. “‘You go in and you do the job as it’s supposed to be done.’ That’s something that has resonated with me. I work really hard to stay in shape to be able to do my job.”

For years, that looked like “an hour of horrible cardio” on the treadmill or stair stepper, she said, followed by bicep curls, squats or deadlifts. Though she could pull about 200 lb. and back squat 135, “my squats were probably questionable,” she said. “They were definitely what we would call bro squats nowadays.”

In 2008, a fellow firefighter introduced Metten to CrossFit after attending a CrossFit Level 1 Seminar at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. The pair went to the local YMCA and Metten did her first CrossFit workout: the Filthy Fifty. Sixty minutes in, her friend quit.

“I don’t know what he had left, but all I remember is that he didn’t finish the burpees and I did, and honest to God, since that day, that solidified it for me,” Metten said. “I’m like, ‘This is how you work out.’”

For a year, Metten followed, scaling workouts and studying videos by athletes such as Jason Khalipa and Tanya Wagner. The YMCA had no rope, so she subbed towel pull-ups. After ripping several gym towels she was banned from checking them out, and after learning the kipping pull-up at a CrossFit Level 1 Seminar in January of 2009, she incited fury among fellow gym-goers whenever she practiced.

“The whole rig was shaking and a little old man was yelling at me, telling me ‘That’s not how you do pull-ups,’” she said.

In September, 2009, Metten went to Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas to train to become an in-flight refueling specialist. Also known as boom operators, refueling specialists lay on their stomachs while maneuvering a long metal boom to connect the KC-135 tanker with other aircraft for refueling.

She used her lunch breaks to train, working out with some Marines on base who did CrossFit, including a captain with a Level 1 certification who often yelled at Metten to “get her butt down, (and) squat for real!” Metten recounted. He coached her to her first ring dip.

“All my classmates were going to restaurants and eating big, fat, happy meals and I chose to take my two hours and go to the gym,” she said, “doing Angie for the first time and ripping like a mofo outside in frickin’ Texas heat because I wasn’t going to stop, because I was training with a bunch of Marines.”

But neither the base gym nor the YMCA back in Bangor had bumper plates, so it wasn’t until 2011, in Open Workout 11.1’s couplet of 55-lb. snatches and double-unders, that she performed an Olympic lift. She completed her 238 reps in the firehouse bay, wedged between two fire trucks with a hose draped across the floor to keep her barbell from escaping. Her fellow fighters watched with mild interest.

“‘Oh, there’s Mel, just working out again,’” Metten quoted them.

Though she had always been active, CrossFit wrought improvement in her fitness that the treadmill never had. She slimmed down and could see definition in her arms.

“Not to mention just I felt way better,” she added. “Incredibly better.”

She also felt more capable fighting fires while wearing up to 75 lb. of gear.

“When you’re working, your cardiovascular (fitness) is huge, your overall strength, your ability to breathe when you’re absolutely fatigued,” she said. “Think about cycling clean and jerks or snatches or even double-unders and you can’t breathe, but yet you have to calm yourself down. That definitely transfers over into our job because when you’re pulling ceilings or just moving stuff out of the way, and you feel like your breathing is going through the roof, you have to calm it down so you can make your bottle last and also just try to be more efficient working in general. All your basic CrossFit skills: stamina, speed, agility, accuracy, all that stuff, it all plays into firefighting.”

After Metten finished boom school in early 2010, she returned to Bangor to fight fires, flying with the Guard once per week and doing CrossFit at the YMCA. She dreamed of opening her own CrossFit affiliate.

“I wanted friends to work out and do CrossFit with me, and just felt that it was so life-changing for me that I wanted to be able to share that,” she said.

The idea remained but a dream until October, 2010, when her father was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. He died 38 days later.

“(It) changed my life,” Metten said. “He was my world, my best friend. Of all the job titles I’ve had or will have I miss being Daddy’s little girl most of all.”

The loss renewed her resolve to make her time count.

“That was a really big, like, reality check,” she said. “Of course I had always talked about opening my own gym. Who doesn’t? So that was a lot of motivation for me to realize that life is short and can change relatively quickly. That gave me so much motivation to do it.”

By spring, she had a location: the 1200-square-foot loading dock of an oil company across the street from the firehouse. She took out a small loan, just enough to buy a few barbells and bumpers, a small free-standing pull-up rig and a set of rings. In June, 2011, CrossFit Bangor was born.

“My husband got deployed when I got the keys to the facility, so I was painting and staging until like 2 a.m. because I was too stubborn to ask for help from anyone else,” she said. “I didn’t care. I was so happy, and I was up there crying at times, missing my dad, but it was perfect.”

Word spread through the fire department and throughout Bangor, and slowly her membership grew. Her first drop-in was an athlete from CrossFit Park City, the affiliate belonging to CrossFit Level 1 Seminar Staff member and legendary athlete, Chris Spealler.

“I remember almost getting emotional about it,” Metten said. “When you have your first drop-in who comes from Chris Spealler’s gym, you have that sigh of like, ‘Everything’s gonna be OK.’”

Fittest in Maine

Everything was OK.

A year after opening, CrossFit Bangor had 80 members and was “busting at the seam,” Metten said. But by 2013, she had a new goal: to compete on the regional floor. While spectating with a friend at the North East Regional at the Reebok Headquarters in Canton, Massachusetts, she set a new bar for her fitness.

“I don’t think we even said two words to each other for some of it, we were both of us just mouths open staring at that field,” Metten said. “I just remember being like, ‘I want to be out there. I don’t care if I’m dead last, but I want to stand on that field so bad.’”

In 2014, she hired a coach, Justin Wright of Reebok CrossFit Back Bay, to write her programming and review training videos. Within a year, she increased her snatch from 130 to 155 lb., her back squat from an “ugly” 200 to 265 lb. and added legless rope climbs to her resume. She finished 266th in the North East in the Open that year.

“It was the little things,” Metten said. “I started CrossFit with no guidance. I tell my athletes everyday who (are) three to six months in and they’re doing what took me years to do because they have a coach. (Wright) taught me efficiency and paying attention to detail.”

She was on track to make it to the regional. Though she suspected 2015 would be too soon, she believed she’d be top-48 material by 2016 or 2017. But then Dave Castro, Director of the Games, trimmed the regional pick to the top-20 athletes from each of the U.S. regions. For a few days, Metten didn’t even want to do the Open anymore.

“I was really upset because even though it was a long shot, I really felt that probably within a good three (years) I felt that with my work ethic … I could at least get to the floor,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Why am I working so hard? I should just join classes and be in really good shape and do my job as a firefighter, and not work so hard. I’m trying to be something that I can’t be.’”

Ever the competitor, Metten’s melancholy lasted only a few days before she was back in the gym with a re-evaluated goal: to finish the Open in the top 100 in the North East.

“It goes back to the fact that I don’t quit anything,” she said. “I can’t, that’s just not really in my vocabulary.”

The first two workouts — a triplet of toes-to-bars, deadlifts and snatches, and an ascending ladder of overhead squats and chest-to-bar pull-ups — tested her resolve. Coming off a recent shoulder impingement, she hadn’t so much as hung from a bar in weeks.

“I was like, ‘Alright, just do the best you can,’” she recalled. “So I jumped up there and I didn’t really have any pain. I was a little sore after. So after week two it was like, ‘OK, cool, I got his. The two bad ones are behind me.’”

By week three, she was on top of her game, stringing muscle-ups together in sets of three when just a couple years prior, she was happy to get one in a day.

“That was huge for me,” she said. “I was getting up and over the rings, so I was tickled to death.”

She banked 351 reps in Open Workout 15.3, putting her near the top of Maine’s Leaderboard. Until then, she hadn’t given much thought to her state rank.

“My goal was to break the top 100 in the North East,” she said. “It almost put more pressure on me, because then, I wanted it.”

Metten and her husband, Karl Metten, were in their kitchen, slicing sweet potatoes for dinner when the email arrived, officially naming Melinda the Fittest Woman in Maine. It took awhile to sink in.

“I don’t think I realized how cool it was until you realize it was people like Julie Foucher that were winning their states, or Camille (Leblanc-Bazinet) and you’re like, ‘Hey, that’s kinda cool because that’s me for my state,’” she said.

Metten paused, remembering watching the women throw down at the regional in 2013, some of whom now ranked below her on the state Leaderboard.

“Not only did I hang with them, I won,” she said. “It was good for my heart, it was good for my soul…it just felt really nice to be recognized for the hours that I put in.”

A New Kind Of Elite

Today, CrossFit Bangor is all grown up. With 11 coaches, 150 members — about 20 of whom who are firefighters or fliers — and 4,000 square feet of space, “we’re at capacity,” Metten said with pride.

When she’s not saving lives or refueling planes at 20,000 feet, she’s training to defend her title and place in the top 100 in the North East again. And this year, she’s chasing a new goal: to place in the top 10 of the firefighter’s division.

“I’m really excited about the firefighter Leaderboard. I think that’s really cool,” she said. After meeting other women firefighters who do CrossFit at throwdowns across the country, she said she’s found a community of athletes who understand how fitness can mean the difference between life and death.

“It teaches you discipline and it can teach you how to act on your feet, and how to push through mental blocks,” she said. “How you’re not the best, and you know what? You’re not gonna get a trophy every day at CrossFit, because you’re gonna have to earn it. It’s the same thing at work. CrossFit teaches you how to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”

“These ladies out there take the job just as seriously as I do,” she added. “There (are) a lot of females that just wear the uniform … and they don’t care that they’re not strong, they don’t care that they can’t do the job at the end of the day. But these chicks that are gonna be on that Leaderboard out there? These guys take their shit serious…whoever they are, wherever they are, I would like to try to hang with the big dogs and try to be top 10.”

Over the next five weeks, Metten will see where she ranks among her fellow servicewomen. But regardless of where she places, she remains focused on giving the gift of life — whether that means rescuing someone from a burning building, or from the ravages of time and poor lifestyle.

“At the gym I get to do that daily,” she said. “I get to give the 60-year-woman the ability to work in her garden pain-free and to lift heavy things properly in her daily tasks. I get to show the stay-at-home mom that she is beautiful and incredibly strong when she power cleans a PR weight. I get to mentor and teach 20-year-old females to take care of their bodies and to be comfortable in their own skins. I help fellow police, fire (and) military stay in the shape they need to so they can do the job to the best of their ability. I’m blessed to say that I get to change lives, for the better, every single day.”