WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio --
Sean Sullivan, a 445th Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter, secured first place in the over-40 age category at the FireFit Europe Championships in Hannover, Germany, amid sweltering heat June 20, 2021.
The multinational competition started with 400 pre-qualification contenders at the beginning of the week. By the final rounds on Saturday and Sunday, 120 competitors were still in the running. On Sunday evening, Sullivan was named the fittest firefighter in his age category, and he placed eighth overall.
Following his performance in the 2019 FireFit World Championships in Oshawa, Canada, Sullivan received an invitation to compete in the FireFit Europe Championships, originally scheduled for summer 2020, but postponed due to COVID-19.
He and his wife, MJ Sullivan, travelled more than 4,000 miles from their home in Frankfort, Kentucky, for the championship competition, which was open to adult firefighters from around the world. While nations like the Czech Republic, Germany, Iran and Poland sent full teams to compete in the obstacle course-style race, Sullivan was the only competitor to travel from the United States for the event.
FireFit competitions are standardized to feature five flights of stairs, which competitors climb while carrying a 45-pound hose pack. Once there, they hoist a 45-pound rolled hose to the top of the tower, by hand, from the ground below. Then they run back down the steps, pick up a sledgehammer and use it against a weighted block until it moves to its designated position, simulating forcible entry in an emergency situation, Sullivan explained. Next, the competitors sprint about 40 yards, navigating around fire hydrants, drag a charged hose, and spray it at a target. The last element involves dragging a 175-pound, 6-feet victim simulator 100 feet backwards across the finish line.
The entire course must be completed in full protective equipment, including an oxygen tank and mask.
The most competitive firefighters in the world complete this course in just over one minute.
The inaugural FireFit competition occurred in Canada in 1994, following a few years behind the 3M Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge. Sullivan regularly competes in iterations of both competitions, which he says are only slightly nuanced. Both emphasize real, technical skills routinely employed by professional firefighters.
“My original goal was just to improve,” said the now 47-year-old, who became a firefighter in the Air Force Reserve in 1994 as part of the 445th CES. A few years later, he also joined Frankfort Fire Department in Kentucky.
He first began competing in firefighter challenges in 2007, completing a few races that year.
“I was terrible,” he said, “and I didn’t like that. I was exhausted by the time I got to the top of the tower, and that part is at the beginning of the course.”
While the FireFit competition is a visibly physical challenge, it’s also a mental feat, Sullivan noted.
“Early on, I would have these thoughts mid-race where I was questioning whether to even continue,” he recalled. “I felt like I had failed—physically and mentally.”
Despite this, Sullivan continued registering for firefighter competitions, and he’s competed in nearly 80 such events, in a wide range of states and countries, since 2007.
At the beginning of his competitive career, his goals included bringing his course run-time to sub-2:30. Later, he set his sights on winning a medal in any category.
“Each time I reached a goal, I adjusted and set a new one,” Sullivan said. “I don’t want to ever stop moving forward, or to stop living life.”
He credits his family with motivating him to be his best, in all aspects. He retired from the Frankfort FD in 2017, after 20 years of service to the agency, so that he could spend more time with his three children, Jaiden, Kaleb and Maddie.
“That’s my fuel,” he said, noting that when it comes to scheduling potential training and competition opportunities, family time always comes first. “It matters more to me what my kids think of me than any other person on this planet.”
As part of his professional-development and self-improvement strategy, he trains with current Combat Challenge individual world champion, Jared Johnson, who lives in Austin, Texas.
“We touch base every week,” emphasized Sullivan, who serves as the assistant chief of training in the 445th CES.
Sullivan said his coach, Johnson, provides nutrition tips, tailored workouts to accommodate previous injuries and goal-setting assistance, along with general mentorship.
“He helps me spot my weaknesses and pinpoint the areas I need to improve on, because I won’t always see that for myself,” he said. “It’s priceless to have somebody else who can see those things and will tell me.”
This concept of mentorship extends to fellow course competitors as well.
“You race against the same people at various competitions throughout the years, and you get to know them,” Sullivan said.
Despite the fact that, on the course, the other firefighters are Sullivan’s direct competitors, the spirit of camaraderie is what initially drew Sullivan to the competition.
“Yes, we’re trying to win, but more than that, we’re sharing best practices and motivating each other to improve,” he said.
In the fire service, performance and efficiency translate to lives saved and mishaps prevented. Through firefighter fitness challenges like these, agencies across the world can share and learn, ultimately benefiting the communities they serve.
His dedication and ambition were recognized by his state’s governor, as well as local media outlets on site at the FireFit Europe Championships. Gov. Andy Beshear officially named Sullivan a Kentucky Colonel in May.
“Next up, I’m training for the Firefighter Combat Challenge’s 30 year anniversary competition next month in Bismarck, North Dakota,” he said.
As for Sullivan’s early goal of running a sub-2:30 course completion? His official run-time at the European finals on June 20 was 1:29.46.