SSS12 Recap: LEAN F-ING IN!!!!

Updated: Feb 12, 2020

This past weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend an epic event for the second consecutive year. I rolled into South Carolina on Thursday night and ended up holding my breath for almost the entire weekend. When you meet so many amazing people and hear so many amazing stories, it becomes hard to exchange oxygen.

Sorinex Summer Strong is an event that began as a birthday party for Richard “Pops” Sorin and it’s grown into a 3-day educational retreat unrivaled by any other. The speakers and attendees that gather every year at Sorinex HQ are unbelievable humans with remarkable pedigrees. They are legendary.

It is impossible to convey the message that every speaker shared, but I’ve distilled my thoughts down to just enough to be digestible for my audience.

First, the backstory. Growing up, I would have described myself as a people person, potentially even an extrovert. I liked talking to strangers and being in other people’s space. My mom would make fun of me because I could go OUT OF STATE and end up running into someone that I knew. {Am I right, Cherene Zapp?} I was like that well into my 30s, but everything changed when I started the fire service.

I didn’t recognize it at the time and the changes were almost imperceptible. I started to dislike people. I began making plans and then canceling them at the last minute. I craved being alone. I morphed into an introvert. It wasn’t just my social life either. In my professional strength and conditioning realm, I shrunk back. When I attended conferences, I would hide in my room between sessions and after the day let out instead of meeting my fellow coaches and socializing.

Maybe it was the myriad of “a little bit bad” calls that started to take their toll on me. Or maybe it’s the few “really bad calls” that got me.

Perhaps it’s the day I was handed the lifeless body of a little boy named Matthew. My officer shoved him into my arms, and I ran with him to the medic and we pulled away. I was frantically doing CPR for several minutes before I realized he was in full rigor. I was too new of a medic to realize that we played the game of “working the code” for the benefit of the family. I could have benefited from a heads-up on that one. His face is burned into my mind for eternity and although I just referred to him as “Matthew”, I remember his full name. I’ll never forget it. I went back to the station and lost my s***. And I felt myself getting small.

It could be the night I responded from home, off duty to a fire 3 houses away from mine. I heard the kitchen window break out and looked through my window to see flames shooting 8 feet in the air. I ran over and, on the way, bumped into another neighbor. I directed him to call 911 and continued toward the house. Upon arrival at the house, I opened the front door. The smoke line was thick, black and down to the floor. I shut the door and ran around the house and bumped smack dab into a very large man. He seemed disoriented and afraid. I asked him “is this your house?” and he responded “what?” I grabbed his shirt by the collar and shouted, “IS THIS YOUR HOUSE?!?” He seemed to snap to a little bit and said “uh-yeah”.

I asked him “is anyone inside?” and he responded “yeah, my baby cousin.” It was June 12th, but my blood froze in my veins. I could hear the sirens coming, but they were so far away still. I went back to the front door, somehow hoping that the situation inside was different. It was untenable. As I approached the B side of the house again, 2 individuals were hanging out of the second-floor window. I instructed them not to jump and to go close their door.

I turned toward the back of the house and could see at least 15 adults watching. Watching and doing nothing. I turned back to the window just as the man jumped. He landed at my feet in a heap, I could see that both of his legs were broken. The woman jumped seconds later. I could now see the charring on the glass of the first-floor window and knew that it was going to soon blow out. I began dragging the man, who was easily 2.5 x my size, by myself. I screamed at the people watching to come and help me, but no one did.

The next day the county sheriff, the ATF and Arson task force were waiting for me on my doorstep when I came home from an errand. They interviewed me and then told me that the man I had bumped into had shot his “baby” cousin (who was in his 20s) and then set the house on fire to cover his crime. His Aunt and Uncle were in the upstairs bedroom at the time and they were the individuals who jumped. I had held the collar of a murderer in my hands. I shrunk myself even more. The pain from that experience of being helpless when I should have been helpful was almost too much to bear.

That night, the night after the fire, I called my station. I just needed to talk to someone. My story came out in an ugly and unprofessional crying fit and the lieutenant I was speaking to {thank you Scott Gray} ordered me to pack my bag. “Pack your bag, get your ass in here. You’re spending the night with us.” I half-heartedly fought back, but knew I wasn’t going to win.

When I arrived, even though they’d already eaten, we ordered a giant pizza and sat together and polished it off. They let me talk and vent. We tried hard that night to close the hole in my heart, but to this day, it’s still open; and sometimes, if I’m not careful, the demons start to swirl. And I felt myself growing a little smaller.

It could be my very first shift as an officer after I was officially promoted. We were dispatched for the possible man down. The dispatch stated that the caller said there were bloody footprints leading to a locked bedroom door. We parked the engine remotely from the scene because every cop in Woodridge was clogging the street. Lacking additional information, my firefighter and I approached the front of the house only to see one of my medics carrying a small, limp bleeding child down the stairs. He said, “I need a driver RIGHT NOW” and he, his partner and my firefighter jumped in the back. I’m the officer. I’m supposed to manage the scene, but I was the only one there at the moment. I jumped in to drive, called my engine driver up to the scene with our EMS equipment and called for an additional ambulance and fire company to respond.

I drove faster than I’ve ever driven a vehicle. I could hear my medics working on the child and willing me to drive faster. If this child was to have a chance, she had it with these medics. They fought so hard for her, but ultimately her wounds took her life.

The man down was her stepfather. He mortally wounded her by stabbing her and then hung himself from a barricade on the door. He did everything he could to take her life and we did everything we could to save it. And he won. We lost. And I can’t get her face or the face of my medic that was carrying her, out of my head. It haunts me still. And it made me even smaller.

On fire department calls, I wouldn’t speak if possible and I purposely didn’t make eye contact because I didn’t want someone to speak to me. I was nearly incapable of making conversation with a civilian without getting angry. I got myself in trouble more than once by shooting my mouth off at a civilian after they said something ignorant to me such as “oh, it’s so nice to see that the department hired a girl” or to my colleague “it’s so nice to see the pony tails”. I nearly threw down with a business owner one day when he said to my captain “Oh, is it bring your wife to work day?” as I stepped off the truck.

I was pissed off and angry all the time and as a result, I withdrew. I withdrew from my friends, my co-workers, and even my family. I shrunk myself down and made myself as small as I possibly could. I stopped thriving in my life and I began holding on just to survive. I was miserable. I even let go of a position with Mad Dogg Athletics and Spinning®, a position that I’d worked so hard to obtain and was so honored to fill; simply because I was having a hard time dealing with people and with traveling. I simply wanted to be home. Alone. Without anyone “bothering” me.

Thankfully, several events in the past few years transpired to save me from my own self-destruction. In order that this not become a 300-page novel, let me hit the high points in bullets:

  • I registered for the RockTape® course in October of 2015. As I discussed in a previous blog click here the course isn’t appropriate for me. I don’t have a license to “touch”, so I can’t use the modality on my clients. But it was a pivotal moment in my life for two reasons: the course reignited my passion for learning AND I met Shante Colfield, @theMovementMaestro. At the time, all I knew is that I loved her passion, enthusiasm and spirit. I had no idea that she would become a friend and a mentor; she would become a guiding light in a world of relative darkness. I credit Shante with changing not only the way I think about coaching, but the way I think about the world. Plus, she hooked me up with my girl Lex, who is the most kickass virtual assistant and designer I could ever wish for. I am grateful for both of these unbelievable women who keep me on the straight and narrow. Side note: can’t WAIT for June 1-2. I’m hosting the Moving with the Maestro course at my Fire Department and both Shante and Lex are staying with me. Want to join us? (For the course, not for the sleepover, lol) Register at There are only a very few spots remaining, so don’t be a procrastinating turd or you’ll miss out.

  • I all but closed my coaching business to general clients and have carved out my niche working only with firefighters and the very rare special opportunity. {Hey there Will Easley, Olympic Weightlifter. I see you!!! I’m proud of you and America is too. Not only are you an amazing young athlete, you are one of the nicest and most upstanding humans I’ve ever met. My life is better for knowing you and being in your space. Thank you.}

  • I began to say “YES” when every cell in my body was screaming “NO!!!” I agreed to write an article for FireHouse Magazine and that has provided many opportunities for me and opened doors that were previously closed tightly.

  • I attended Sorinex Summer Strong 11 (last year) where I met legendary human beings doing unbelievable services for mankind. I sat on the edge of my chair as Derek Woodske reached his giant paw straight into my soul and squeezed my heart as he told the entire crowd to stop hiding and to “LEAN <fucking> IN”. {I add the descriptor as it seems to keep me leaning better.} Thanks to attending that event, I’ve been leaning in for over a year now and it feels so much better than hiding and being small.

  • Matt Olsen from Illinois Firefighter Peer Support visited my department last spring and I hung on every word as he spoke about how the atrocities that we see and experience in this job tend to tear us apart. “Every amazing and heroic feat ever performed by a firefighter, was also performed by a HUMAN. People forget that we are HUMAN, not superheroes.” Because his words meant so much to me, I subsequently applied to, and was accepted to take the Peer Support Training. It has been a game changer for me, and I am so grateful for that. I now see how the job has changed me and how it changes my co-workers. It is my honor to be able to address newly hired employees and tell them what all of us should have known before we ever start this job. Thanks to Peer Support, my life is changed, and I can help others change. It’s my proudest accomplishment in the fire service.

  • As a result of Summer Strong 11, I practiced bravery when I applied to present at 5 conferences in 2019. I crossed my fingers and hoped that I would be honored with being selected to speak at even one of them. As the months ticked by, I was notified over and over that I’d been accepted and ultimately, I’m speaking at 4 conferences this year.

  • I’ve been using my speaking platform to not only educate on the topics upon which I’m presenting, but to speak about firefighter depression and suicide and how training, nutrition, sleep and wellness can help with those issues.

  • I attended Summer Strong 12 this year, met up with my friends from last year and even made some new ones. Each speaker had a different message, but they were all unified messages of strength, living life on the fringe, creating your best life and leaning <fucking> in. I can’t summarize every speaker, but here are just a few…

  1. Derek Woodske: “Success happens when the peripheral noise goes away.” He defines the fringe as those that push against the ceiling and stated, “winning mentalities are the minority in our society”. He advised: “Surround yourself with the fringe!” and “unusual people tend to do extraordinary things.”

  2. Major Don Bigham is the only Army strength and conditioning coach that currently wears the uniform. He is turning the Army physical conditioning on its head. “To physically dominate whatever you want to do in life, you have to apply SCIENCE!” Further, he advised that since “there is no time out in the tactical community”, training had better be spot on.

  3. Cam Hanes, champion bow hunter (#keephammering) reminded us that “Life will kick the shit out of you. You’ve got to be built for it.”

  4. Ryan Michler instructed us to choose the path of MOST resistance instead of the path of LEAST. He finds that we are living someone else’s life by shifting responsibility away from ourselves because we are lazy, it’s expected, and it’s encouraged. “Live with intention. Be deliberate about what you want to accomplish.”

  5. Megan Young: “Follow the path of what your life SHOULD be”, “emotional intelligence is something you live, not something you learn” and finally, if you’re not happy, BEGIN AGAIN! #meguhstrong

  6. My new friend and kindred spirit, Elmer Bench of Breaking Bars told us: “Do things the right way; the HARD way, the BEST way.” Amen Elmer. I can’t wait to break bars with you soon.

  7. Champion knife maker Neil Kamimura likened life to metal. “We’re going to get beat up. Nobody great has come from the easy life. Every great person is a forged human being.” And then he hit me with the gut punch: “Giving away your heart leads to a hole. That’s where the demons leak in.”

There were so many more speakers with additional influential messages. I can’t say enough good things about Summer Strong. This year was Summer Strong 12. I heard about the event when it was Summer Strong 8. And I was afraid to attend. I was small. I was haunted. And as such, missed out on all the growth and development that I could have been gathering for years. I regret that, but I have risen. Like a Phoenix from the ashes I have risen. And I’m no longer small. I take up my space. And I help others rise and take up theirs.

I am so grateful that I was able to turn my life around. It means everything to me. The fire service creates holes in our hearts. And because I’ve turned my ship, I can help others with their demons, the demons that leak in through the holes that we all have in our hearts.

The fire service will change you—it’s inevitable. But if you know what’s coming, you can be prepared. Prepared with buckets of resiliency. Prepared with the ability to reach a hand out and to take someone else’s. Prepared to know that although you will feel small and want to subsequently BE small, that doesn’t need to be your story. You are not just a character in your story. You can WRITE your story.

Do you need a hand? Reach out. Start a conversation. It’s ok to not be ok. Lean <fucking> in.