Meeting the 'combat challenge'

Sandra Solem was told explicitly by paramedics that she shouldn't compete in one of the final events in the World's Firefighter Combat Challenge last week.

Sandra Solem was told explicitly by paramedics that she shouldn't compete in one of the final events in the World's Firefighter Combat Challenge last week.

Solem, a Duluth Fire Department firefighter, was making the first of two runs during a grueling event in Henderson, Nev., on Nov. 10 when she had an activity-induced asthma attack.

"But I thought there's no way I'm going to quit, not after all that work and all that training," she said.

Solem, a Hermantown resident, turned in a personal-best time, which led to her finishing first in the United States and second in the world in the female tandem group of the combat challenge.

About 700 firefighters from around the world gathered Nov. 7-11 to put their skills to the test against obstacle courses designed to mirror challenges they face during real fires.


Solem is a veteran of the firefighting competition circuit, having started competing in 1999 when she placed seventh among all women during in the world competition.

But she dropped out for various reasons and didn't take up the sport again until this year, when she competed in numerous events around the country, often finishing second.

"Always a bridesmaid," she joked.

But at a competition in Janesville, Wis., she met Joyce Sauer, a firefighter from Rapid City, S.D., who finished first in the individual events to Solem's second.

Sauer said she was so impressed with Solem that she caught up with her again at a competition in Evansville, Ind., and asked if she wanted to compete in tandem events.

Solem agreed, and the two, who stand at 5-foot-11 and 6-foot-1, dubbed themselves "Two Tall."

The two paired up against four other groups, but at 41, and 44, respectively, Solem and Sauer were among the oldest competitors.

Still, Solem found many of her competitors weren't up to some tasks, with two of the teams either failing to complete events or not finishing in a qualifying time.


At the end of some of the competitions, paramedics "are waiting to rip the gear off of you," Solem said. "People are so tired that their legs just turn to Jell-O."

During the event where Solem had her asthma attack, she strapped 25 pounds of firefighting gear on her back and ran up the stairs of a five-story structure while carrying a 50-pound coiled hose. Once at the top, she had to pull another 50-pound coiled hose up the stairs before running back down.

She did it in 1 minute, 50 seconds.

"At the end, I was making a few asthmatic sounds," she said. "But I told myself: I didn't come here not to finish."

Sauer finished the course by using a sledgehammer to simulate knocking a hole in a roof, then sprinting 100 yards through cones to pick up a hose and spray a target. Next, she sprinted back to pick up a 175-pound dummy and dragging that backward 100 feet to the finish line, all while wearing firefighting gear. Total time: 2 minutes, 40 seconds.

Sauer, who had never done a tandem event before, was happy with the experience.

"I loved it," Sauer said. "It just gives you a whole different perspective."

Both Solem and Sauer said they want to return to the world competition and do better.


"Hopefully, this time we can take first," Solem said.

Solem plans to compete in more events before that and find an additional sponsor to the one she has now, Red Star Lounge in the Fitger's Brewery Complex.

Solem was recently contacted by a Superior firefighter who wants to train with her and help set up obstacle courses, which will help lower her times.

"Being faster has a lot to do with being able to run it flawlessly," she said.

She's also hoping to recruit another training partner: her 18-year-old son, Cody, who recently entered fire school in Duluth.

If he's able to graduate and catch on with a department, Solem said the two will compete in co-ed tandem events next year.

If they ever competed against each other, however, Solem said she'd probably finish second once again.

"He's just so much stronger," she said. "I'd be depending on him for the faster time."

What To Read Next
Get Local