New Zealand firefighters come to Augusta to train for competition

More than a race

Firefighters Rob Holah and Donny Butters don’t only show their stamina when they are rushing into real burning buildings.

They run up a smokeless flight of stairs and rescue a 175-pound dummy victim just to feel the pounding of their hearts and a rush of adrenaline.

It’s a skill they perfect so they can save lives, but one they use to compete against others in their profession.

About 800 firefighters from around the world will compete Monday in a race that simulates the duties of a firefighter but puts the men and women against the clock in competition.

The 20th annual Firefighter Com­bat Challenge’s World Challenge puts working firefighters in full gear to complete tasks such as climbing stairs, hoisting hoses and carrying victims to see who is the strongest and fastest at their craft.

Holah and Butters, a team from New Zealand, came to Augusta this week to train before traveling to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for the competition, which they call the highest showcase of firefighter endurance. They stopped at the Augusta Fire Department to use the five-story training tower and work with the Fort Gordon Fire Department’s Brandon Cunningham, who has won nine world titles at the event.

The New Zealanders met Cunning­ham years ago at a World Challenge and stayed in touch as they all trained to improve. Holah said camaraderie is one of the biggest elements of the competition, and winning is secondary.

“It’s less about racing other people than it is racing yourself,” he said. “We always need a personal challenge, and this is as big as that can get.”

On Thursday, the men dressed in full gear with air tanks on their backs and raced up the Augusta Fire Department’s training tower.

In his fastest time ever, Cunningham completed the course in one minute and 22 seconds. To him, the best results come when it hurts the worst and when his heart is fully in it.

“Everything you have inside, everything you feel, this is the place I like to feel it,” Cunningham said to the two New Zealanders at the top of the repelling tower. “I feel a lot of emotion right here.”

Butters said they became interested in the competition after seeing the event on ESPN in 2003 and have traveled to the U.S. about four times to compete.

All the hours of training and miles of traveling come down to just moments in the competition, but it is worth the thrill, Butters said.

“It’s all for one minute and 30 seconds, and then the end,” Butters said. “It’s a great feeling.”

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