My name is Erin Gray. I am a firefighter/paramedic who serves the citizens of Knox County, Tennessee, but I haven’t always been.
Before my career change, like you, I worked in the fitness industry. I served as a group fitness director over 23 gyms and later after a corporate buyout, as co-owner of a CrossFit affiliate. During that time, I had the honor of completing hundreds of hero workouts, or workouts done to honor fallen soldiers, firefighters, and police officers.
It became more than a workout and something very real to me when we chose “McGhee” as our very first hero WOD when we opened our gym back in 2014. My business partner decided to reach out to the mother of this hero, Sherrie Battle McGhee, who unbeknownst to us, resided in our own town. Corporal Ryan McGhee had given his life in the line of duty on May 9, 2009 and in the years following his death, thousands of people around the world had performed Ryan’s workout of a 30 minute AMRAP consisting of 5 deadlifts, 13 box jumps, and 9 push ups. Sherrie could not believe all that time people were remembering her son and honoring his sacrifice. Sherrie came to the gym, shared Ryan’s story, showed his medals, and inspired our members. With tears in our eyes, we lifted, jumped, and pushed with emotions and reverence as I had never experienced before.
Fast forward to 2018, after a career change to the fire service, I was a rookie firefighter at the age of 34 and was lucky enough to be included in a similarly powerful event- The 9/11 Stair Climb. This annual event pays tribute to the 343 firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice on September 11, 2001. During this event, firefighters climb 110 stories, the equivalent of the number of stories in the World Trade Center, in full turnout gear and air packs.
Upon check-in at the event, each firefighter selects a fallen firefighter who made the ultimate sacrifice and wears that badge with that firefighter’s name and picture on it. During the climb itself, the walls of the hot stairwell are lined with pictures of each of the 343 as the radio traffic from 9/11 is played. Like running a marathon, the repetition of movement takes its toll on the hips, quads, and lower back- mind you, we are wearing roughly 70 pounds of gear. That gear is designed to protect us from flames and heat, but it also traps our own body heat within the gear itself. I can recall one moment when my legs felt like Bambi, I looked up and followed each of the pictures on the wall, and was able to find the strength to climb step after step. At the end of this event, when each team has completed the stair climb, you walk up to the podium to read the name of your firefighter and ring the bell. Words fail to express the feeling in that stairwell.
I am thankful for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation for what they do to ensure the 343 aren’t forgotten through stair climb events, and that is only one part of what they do. Their mission is, “To honor and remember America’s fallen fire heroes, to provide resources to assist their families in rebuilding their lives, and work within the fire service community to reduce firefighter death and injuries.” NFFF completes its mission through a variety of avenues: providing financial support following a death, counseling resources, scholarship opportunities for kids of the fallen, and education and prevention for current fire service members.
So what does all this mean for you? It is the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and it is important that we do not allow time to numb us to what was lost that day. How does one really honor heroes? An Instagram post may feel good at the moment, but what really has that accomplished? So I am challenging you – each of you in joining me in honoring the 343.
I’ve had a lot of time to think through this over the past few months as I have been completing a challenge to complete 19 stair climbs, with my 20th to be completed on September 11, 2021 with my brothers and sisters here in Knoxville, Tennessee.
So, here’s 3 ways you can join me:
1. Host a stair climb open to the public. As Core customers, you have obviously chosen the best step machine out there. (I stand by that. Trust me, not all stepmills are created equal. The StairMaster 10G is the closest thing you’ll ever come to climbing while carrying fire equipment.) So, you may as well put those machines to the test. All are welcome to complete a climb- not just firefighters.
2. Donate or partner with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. I stand behind this organization as they stand behind us regardless of how much time has gone by.
3. If you want to do something, but you aren’t sure how or what to do, then please reach out to a Core Health & Fitness Territory Manager. (I recommend the ruggedly handsome rep from the Carolinas, Tony Gray. I might be partial since he’s my husband.) Core is commemorating 9/11 by creating its own StairMaster virtual climb team and can assist you in making this a powerful 20th anniversary.
I look forward to having you join me in honoring the 343.