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George Heslin (a 23-year-old white man with dark hair and large arm muscles) in the Mordoh Fitness Center training to become a firefighter - climbing a Stairmaster wearing extra weight on his back, pushing a heavy weight around the track, and lifting a barbell, all while wearing a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

George Heslin, Firefighter-in-Training

George Heslin has enjoyed the J’s facilities recreationally for years — at summer camp as a child and more recently utilizing the gym and the pool as he tried on teaching and culinary careers before realizing they were not what he wanted. But as he embarks upon his journey to becoming a firefighter, the JCC (and specifically the Mordoh Fitness Center) has become a real asset in helping George achieve his dream.

“My true success here, I owe it to JCC and my training and the resources I’ve been able to utilize through the equipment, through the facilities and the time and the people who are supporting me, encouraging me, giving me a friendly environment that I want to come back to,” George said.

“I Feel Lucky to have Earned this Chance”

As of late December 2020, George is currently in the middle of his fire department applications. He started training in the spring of 2020, right when the COVID-19 pandemic began, and made it through all the stages of the Indianapolis Fire Department (IFD)’s most recent multi-step process (written test, physical tests, oral interview, background check, mental and medical exams) as the 2,500 initial applicants were whittled down to the final 200, only to be told at the very end that he wouldn’t be part of the 55-person recruit school class beginning in February 2021.

George is still on IFD’s “recruiting active list,” so he’s hoping to get a call in October 2021 for February 2022 as part of the next-ranked 55 candidates. In the meantime, he has applied to suburban departments like Carmel and Noblesville and is anticipating taking their tests soon.

“I feel lucky to have earned this chance to be in [IFD’s] watch, their consideration,” George said. “That’s something [I’m] proud of as someone who had never even thought of it prior to starting. Everyone you talk to that has gone through the process knows how important it is to throw many pieces of paper in many hats. That’s really your only chance of success unless you’re abnormally lucky.”

“Be Comfortable Being Uncomfortable”

When George first began training, one of his main concerns was the CPAT, or Candidate Physical Ability Test. “It’s very hard but can be done if you’re fit,” he said. “My goal was to make it look as easy as I could for the people watching me, because it is pass/fail, so the only thing I could do was show them how ready I am.”

To maximize his chances of completing the test with absolute comfort and at a good pace, George began working with JCC personal trainer Javan Odinga. “I owe a lot to Javan,” George said. “I owe a lot of the knowledge I have as far as my ability to walk into a gym and be creative and develop new workouts and to challenge my body. He taught me a lot in how to work things in different ways, and I tried to pay attention to how he was guiding me through that and how he was pushing me.”

Much of what they worked on, like many of the exercises on the CPAT, had some sort of potential pragmatic use:

George doing one of the pushing exercises Javan devised for him
  • Lifting and dragging things (like victims’ bodies)
  • Moving George’s own body weight — pulling and pushing up and down, climbing stairs (often while holding up to 80 lbs of extra weight to mimic heavy equipment)
  • Cardiovascular endurance — breathing heavy and hard in a hot, sweaty and stressful environment

“They really stress how important it is to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” George said. “You want to be able to think and process while you are just dying — burning, aching, breathing hard.”

Since passing the CPAT (and putting on 30 lbs of muscle), George has taken to working out by himself. The CPAT accreditation is universal, and George was able to utilize the credit in his other applications in the 2020 calendar year (though he still simulates the test every day in the gym), but he definitely plans on continuing to use Javan as a resource. “I have taken the knowledge I’ve gotten from Javan and I’ve applied it and I perpetuate that as much as I can. But of course I think it’ll be important to go back to him,” George said.

“It’s a Labor of Love”

George credits the people at the J for his drive and self-improvement with regard to firefighting as much as the physical facilities. “Don and Drew, Javan, Ashley, regulars here, all these people eventually learned about what I was going through, what I was doing, and it became a team of people who are rooting for me. That friendly and supportive environment is a huge deal,” he said.

And it’s for those people that George is doing what he’s doing. “Being in [the gym], it’s a labor of love, a labor of trying to care for other people, trying to serve my community,” he said. “It is my job to be in here and my responsibility to make myself fit enough to, if someone’s in a burning building, be in a position of strength where I can help both of us make it out alive, whether it’s dragging that person out effectively without hurting them, pulling my body weight over a beam, lifting something off of me that fell on me, climbing a certain amount of stairs with hoses and oxygen on me.”

George compares maintaining his physical fitness as a firefighter-to-be to being in an airplane and putting on your own oxygen mask before you put it on another person. “When I came up with that analogy, that kind of propelled me. Every day I think about that,” he said. “My work in the gym and at home to strengthen my body or keep myself calm and focused is my act of putting on my mask first, so I can take a breath and make sure I safely secure the metaphorical masks of those who need my help. Firefighters need to be ready for whatever perils come after the public, and that preparation includes self-care.

“I hit it hard every single day like I hadn’t anything else in my life for the last nine months, and I haven’t really stopped.”

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