Air Force Academy Assistant Fire Chief Pat Kraft stumbled on the way to his world title.
Midway through his run at October's World Firefighter Combat Challenge in Las Vegas, the Air Force veteran who now works as a Defense Department civilian, drew a two-second penalty when the handle of his mallet fell the wrong way and he felt his 41-year-old legs give out.
"My mind was saying 'go', but my body was sucking for air," he said.
Kraft's mind won, earning him a world championship in the chief's category at the event, which draws hundreds from around the globe to test firefighter skills against the clock.
If the firefighter event was baseball, the academy would be home to the Yankees. The fire department there, a mix of airmen and civilians such as Kraft, has embraced the competition and boasts a string of world championships that goes back a decade.
"We have quite a few competitors at the academy; we create our own team year in and year out," Kraft said.
The competitions test skills firefighters use every day. They haul hoses, use a sledgehammer to simulate breaking down a door, drag a dummy to safety and shoot water for accuracy.
Kraft says honing those skills for competition makes academy firefighters better when the worst happens, citing the Black Forest fire, which destroyed hundreds of homes and blackened more than 18,000 acres in northern El Paso County last summer.
"It reminds me and humbles me on what we do and what the firefighters will be doing on a fire under my command," Kraft said.
Kraft made it through the challenges in 1:38.84 -- 9 seconds ahead of the next competitor.
The challenge is part of a move by fire departments to push physical fitness in their ranks, Kraft said. Winners at the world championship are elite athletes who constantly work out to shave their times.
As an assistant chief, Kraft says he has extra incentive to speed through the event.
"Everyone will hold it against you when you're slow," he said.
While the challenge builds muscles and skills, it also builds strong bonds.
Kraft and others at the academy regularly train with firefighters from other Front Range cities as they prepare for regional, national and world competition.
"You have an instant connection because you have been out there sweating and putting in hard work on the training area," Kraft said.
Back at the academy, Kraft is not resting on his laurels. Just days after his win, he donned bunker gear and began working out.
"I'm training for next year," he said.