The air is thick with competition at the Los Angeles Convention Center, as Winter Park firefighter Keith Streger locks his feet into place and prepares to race. There’s a crowd of people watching inside a wing of the convention center, yet a 2K race is just about to start.
Streger intently locks his eyes on a screen in front of him before an alarm sounds and one word appears on the monitor.
Streger was one of several firefighters who competed in the 2017 World Police and Fire Games Aug. 13, taking home a fourth-place finish in the 35-to-39 age group for the rowing competition.
Out of eight competitors in his age group, Streger was the only American on the floor, going up against firefighters from China, Sweden, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and the country of Georgia.
“The Winter Park Fire Department was definitely supportive of me going and competing,” Streger said.
“There’s camaraderie. It gets everybody together from all parts of the world, because we all do the same job. I don’t care if you’re from here or from Australia, we all help and do the same job. It was really cool to talk to some of the guys there and just be involved.”
A WAY TO WORK OUT
The Winter Park firefighter’s journey toward the rowing competition came from his desire to mix things up. With working out being part of his normal routine as a firefighter, Streger wanted to try something different — he gave rowing a try at a local gym about two years ago and was hooked instantly.
“I started doing it, and I realized I’m pretty good at it, because I’m long and just have the right body type for it,” Streger said. “I’ve always run and done competitions and 5Ks around town, but I get smoked a lot, because I’m too big and heavy. Rowing also uses a lot of legs and a lot of back, so I find I’m pretty good at that.”
Streger eventually looked into rowing competitively. He started training, tweaking his form and trimming down his best times at CrossFit Firebase Orlando and Live2Row in Ocoee. He even put his skills to the test at Florida competition in Melbourne back in January.
“It’s totally a different feel from when you’re practicing,” Streger said. “It was huge; there were rowers everywhere. It was a gym full of rowers, a sea full of rowers.”
Streger had about six months to train for the World Police and Fire Games, continuing to put in work and building his leg strength.
He continued to improve his times little by little.
“It’s just challenging yourself to go faster and harder,” Streger said. “Tiny little tweaks here and there really help.”
Back in Los Angeles, Streger’s heart is racing. He’s lying on his back next to his rowing machine in recovery mode.
He just rowed a 2K race in 6 minutes, 33 seconds, beating his personal goal by just a second — a significant jump in a competition measured by fractions of second.
A Chinese firefighter walks over to Streger and stands over him, extending a hand to help pull him back up. The Winter Park firefighter manages to get back on his feet, although slightly wobbly.
Streger realizes he didn’t win the race but still shows respect to the other firefighters with the best times, high-fiving them and shaking hands.
“We all want to win, but we appreciate fast times,” he said. “It’s hard work.”
‘WE’RE ALL BROTHERS’
It’s the same respect that firefighters show one another for the work they do. With 16 years of experience in the Winter Park Fire Department, Streger knows exactly what it takes to do this kind of job.
Many of the seven other rowers in the competition didn’t even speak Streger’s language, but the close bond remains.
“I don’t know how to describe that feeling,” he said. “It’s more of a warm ‘wow.’ It’s really cool to be a part of it. We’re all brothers.”
Streger plans to keep rowing competitively, practicing on a new rowing machine ordered by the fire department at Station 62. He’s already set to compete in February 2018 at a Florida competition, followed by the United States Police and Fire Games in San Diego next June.
He’s looking to shave a few more seconds off his best time, and also hopes to return to the World Police and Fire Games, hosted in Beijing, China, in 2019.