The Women Who Want to Save Your Life

I’m a personal trainer on most days. It’s a cool job. I get to see people change, little by little, day by day, month by month into better versions of their physical selves. I get to watch as that physical self inevitably changes their inner lives, makes them happier and more confident. It’s freaking cool. That inside/outside magic is my absolute favorite part of the job.

My pride and joy, though, is that I have the privilege and honor of acting as the lead trainer for the United Women Firefighters and their training classes at New York Sports Clubs. I got tapped because I was an NCO in the Marine Corps, which they figured would give me the right experience and attitude to prepare women mentally and physically for the FDNY academy at Randall’s Island.

It’s a hard class. Scratch that. It’s a brutal class. The ladies wear 50 lb weight vests for the duration, and they use actual firefighting gear for two hours at a time in a program that tests then exhausts their backs, legs, guts, shoulders, hips, arms, and especially their grips. To a woman, every day of my class is the hardest workout they have ever endured.

Because firefighting is a hard job. Everything is heavy, and there is no regressed version of the equipment for females.

Tuesday was one of those highlights in my job, when I got to see some of my trainees walk over and get the sheepskin that declared they were probationary firefighters. It was my third such ceremony. I’ve been proud every time. I smiled from ear to ear when I saw Vanessa, Giselle, Antoinette, Annette, and Josephine graduate. I worked with all of them, including out of class, when they were in the academy and having their specific dark nights of the soul. This last Tuesday, 5 May 2015, was different. All the other ladies had been training hard with the UWF for years, in some cases. The two girls who walked this Tuesday? Those girls were mine. I trained them from the beginning.

But my girls weren’t the only ones who walked on Tuesday.

Earlier, on Sunday, I received a flood of messages pointing me to this article in the NY Post:

If you don’t click, that’s an article about Rebecca Wax, a woman who didn’t meet the demands of the academy in a satisfactory way. I’m being judicious with my wording.

I had never heard of Rebecca Wax until Sunday. She did not train under me, not even once. I’ve had plenty of women show up and essentially turn off during my class. Some puke. A couple peed themselves. A few just turn off like robots that run out of power. It’s a very, very intense course, and for a lot of women it’s a rude awakening that their version of gym training might be insufficient for the arduous duties required of them by the FDNY. Rebecca never showed up for it. I have no idea what training she was doing prior to the academy. But she’s a woman, and she was joining the FDNY, so it seemed like everyone who knows me sent me that article.

On graduation day, Rebecca Wax was all the media cared about.

They flooded Commissioner Nigro with questions about her, and when he declared himself through with the matter, I watched them turn to Sarinya Srisakul, the president of the United Women Firefighters, and they flooded her with questions. Sarinya, for her part, answered that the real story was the leak in the academy that allows probationary firefighters’ personal information to reach the press.

I agree with her, but that’s not why I’m writing this.

That’s not the real story.

Before I received it nine more times, the Post article actually made me happy, because the only part I cared about was this one:

While Wax fell short, two other female probies in the graduating class passed the FST with flying colors.
“They’re kicking butt. They’re doing better than 50 percent of the class,” the insider said. “When they get assigned to a firehouse, they’ll be welcomed with open arms because they’ve done what everyone else has gone through.”

Damn right.

Those two are Nia Terrelonge and Hildy Santana (left to right as named).

I trained Nia and Hildy from top to bottom, December 2013 to December 2014. I knew them when they were just ordinary ladies and, frankly, unfit for the job of being a firefighter. I watched their expressions during class transform from uncomprehending anguish to gritty determination. I burned my vocal cords to tatters screaming at them, brought them to tears or near tears, and saw them anneal before me.

By the time December came, they were part of a smoothly oiled machine, humming along, easily kicking ass, and ready to enter academy. Hildy was actually training twice a day, and I had to tell her to back off lest she hurt herself prior to starting academy.

They had their struggles, but both of them impressed the other probies. Of particular note is Nia’s performance on the functional skills test (FST) that caused so much commotion with Rebecca Wax. A passing time is 17m50s Nia finished fire academy with a time close to the high 12m, meaning she was performing better than half the class of mostly male probies!

(And better than me! If you want a long, long example of what all the fuss with Rebecca Wax is about, here’s some footage of me performing FST to give you an idea. Be warned before you click: it’s 14m long! )

Nia graduated 17th in a class of 309 probies!

Look, I’m a New Yorker. I know well that wherever there’s venom to spit, the Post will be there. What the NY Post is doing to Rebecca’s Wax life sucks. The cloud they cast over her day of celebration sucks. That Rebecca Wax never showed up to my training sucks, because if she did what I told her, worked out how I told her, ate how I told her, that story would never have been written.

But she didn’t.

These two amazing women did.

They worked their butts off, and I’m fiercely proud of them. A lot of ink gets spilled to make it seem like women shouldn’t be out there, shouldn’t be risking their necks to fight man’s oldest enemy and save our friends and family members from it. When a Rebecca Wax comes along, it feeds into people’s preconceived notions about what a woman can and can’t accomplish in this world. A badass like Nia or Hildy comes along, though, and she doesn’t fit that narrative. She just quietly bulldozes through her training like a good probie and emerges from that 18-week crucible ready to serve the taxpayers. Those two just helped make history. Along with Wax, they have brought the total number of females serving the FDNY to 46, the most in history.

Now you know their names.

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