Sarah Reasoner searched for years to find a higher purpose for her power.
The former All-America track star tried bodybuilding, but came to loathe the sport's emphasis on appearance and stagecraft. She was attracted to competitive powerlifting, but started longing for a deeper meaning behind pushing around all that weight.
While driving one October day in 2017, the idea of a career as a firefighter — first suggested by a workout partner — prompted her to pull over and call up the St. Paul Fire Department's website. In what seemed like fate, she saw an invitation to attend an upcoming Women's Expo. There, she met several female firefighters, took a stab at the department's agility and strength test and even tried on a fire helmet and air tank.
"I put on that gear and I knew," the 31-year-old said. "This was it. This is what I wanted to do."
She added: "A lot of this job is realizing that we're supposed to help people, and this world is not about us."
Reasoner has only been with the department full-time since July. But she's already one of its best-known firefighters. She was recently named one of the world's strongest firefighters in Santa Monica, Calif., and the 6-foot, 200-pounder is a chiseled example of the kind of firefighter St. Paul seeks for its ranks for years to come — strong, fit and, increasingly, female.
"She is driven. She is motivated. And she is unique," said St. Paul Fire Deputy Chief Roy Mokosso, who is tapping Reasoner to help recruit more women. "Once she graduated, I approached her and said, 'Hey, are you ready to motivate young girls and women? Show them that being strong is cool?' And she said, 'Absolutely.' "
He added: "It's a great story. I think it represents the future of this department."
Of the 427 firefighters now serving in St. Paul, an all-time high of 27 are women — just over 6%. Seven cadets of the 24-member 2019 academy class were women, although just three of the 42 candidates in the current fire academy are women. Still, Mokosso said, an emphasis on recruiting more female firefighters is showing steady — if slow — results. In May 2018, there were 18 female firefighters.
Part of the challenge in increasing the female ranks, Mokosso said, is that women and men must meet the same physical standards. While the fire department is reaching out to more women — through expos, fitness engagement sessions and even planned summer camps for girls — it makes no accommodations in physical testing. Women complete the same agility course, perform the same feats and tote the same weight all in the same minimum time — under 3 ½ minutes — as male candidates.
All must meet identical physical standards for a job that requires strength, fitness and health, he said. Firefighters are retested each of their first three years on the job and undergo continuing health and wellness evaluations.
While modern fire codes, alarms, sprinkler systems and better building materials make it less likely than decades ago that fire crews are speeding to a half dozen fires a day, Mokosso said they still face daunting mental and physical demands. St. Paul firefighters last year made more than 50,000 runs — the most ever, he said. They must be ready to dash to a fire, medical call, car accident or hazardous materials incident at a moment's notice.
"They are going from a sedentary state to full-out, you've got to get there," he said of firefighters' 24-hour shifts. "It's 3 o'clock in the morning and it's go time."
Jodie Carroll, 45 and a 2019 academy graduate, said the job not only requires a hunger for hard work, but the physical condition to perform it. A former fitness trainer, the 5-foot-8, 165-pound mother of three daughters — ages 24, 17 and 15 — caught the firefighter bug at the same women's expo as Reasoner. She works out six days a week.
"We feel an incredible responsibility to be able to do this, and the training does not stop," Carroll said.
"I am super proud to be a part of it, that's for sure."
Reasoner welcomes the physical demands of being a firefighter.
During a recent workout at a gym in northeast Minneapolis, she focused on strengthening her legs and back — doing dead lifts and leg curls. The workouts help her perform better in a job that has already involved going into burning buildings in full gear, she said.
The Cambridge, Minn., native was a six-time All-America in the shot put and discus at Calvin University (then Calvin College) in Grand Rapids, Mich., and still holds the school shot put record with a throw of more than 48 feet. After college, she spent several years trying to find her footing. She lost a bunch of weight, got married, moved around the country, stopped working out, gained weight, moved back to Minnesota and got divorced. After the split, Reasoner returned to fitness.
"I needed to get myself back," said the St. Paul resident. "And going back to the gym was one way I could do that."
First she tried bodybuilding, training for a year before her first show in October 2017. She quickly decided it wasn't for her.
"It introduced me to some great people, but I just started hating that I did it to look good. To be on stage," she said. "I hated that. Very much."
But the bodybuilding had one lasting result. A workout partner who talked about his son — a firefighter — planted a seed. When Reasoner attended the Women's Expo, it took root.
While she failed her first try at the physical test that day ("It was really tough"), firefighters encouraged her to hone her skills by going to a gym run by a female firefighter who held the time record for the physical test.
After doing well on the written test, Reasoner spent the summer of 2018 training for the physical exam. In September 2018, on her 30th birthday, she not only passed it but broke the record.
Reasoner graduated from the three-month academy at the end of June and has been on the job since the start of July. For her first three years, she'll rotate from station to station as needed, filling in for firefighters who call in sick, go on vacation or who are injured. She said she loves the collegiality. She loves the need for teamwork. She loves the physical demands of the job. Her goal is to be a firefighter her peers can count on.
"This job is everything and more of what I wanted it to be," she said. "It's challenging every day. Every day, you learn."
That doesn't mean the former NCAA runner-up has given up competing. Last month, she finished fifth out of nine firefighters in the World's Strongest Firefighter contest, part of the Arnold Strongman USA competition. She was the only woman to compete. In June, she will participate in another strongman competition for which she's begun training. She lifts weights five days a week and does cardio training the other two.
Despite the accolades, Reasoner said she simply wants to become the best firefighter she can be. And while she enjoys the strongman contests, she savors doing something meaningful with her strength.
"It's pretty humbling to know there are guys who have been on this job and women who have been on this job who can run circles around me," she said.
"It's humbling and motivating to know that my crew depends on me. And the citizens of St. Paul depend on me."
James Walsh • 612-673-7428