The YXE First Responders Fitness Festival: Police, firefighters and paramedics join together and unite with the community
October 4, 2023 By Brittani Schroeder
What do you get when members of law enforcement, the fire service and paramedics come together? You get a new event that unites the community and raises awareness and money for first responder mental health. So how did it all start?
Chris Harris has worked for the Saskatoon Police Service (SPS) for 17 years. During his time, he has worked in a variety of units, including VICE, missing persons and frontline patrol. Currently, he is a member of the community response unit, or “bike unit”.
Harris’s obstacle course racing background started in 2014 when he competed in his first Tough Mudder event in Whistler, B.C. Harris has competed in 10 Tough Mudder events, including six times at the annual 24-hour World’s Toughest Mudder event. He has completed two Spartan Race Trifectas, which is completion of their sprint, super and beast races in one year, and competed twice internationally in the Obstacle Course World Championships.
Angela McEwan has been a police officer at SPS for nine years and spent time working in corrections before being hired. She is also an accomplished weightlifter and CrossFitter. During her time in frontline patrol, she met Harris and bonded with him over their shared love of fitness and competition.
In 2020, McEwen and Harris were watching The Spartan Games series on YouTube. “This event brought together 12 men and 12 women from across a number of different racing backgrounds and pitted them against each other in a four-day, multi-event competition,” says Harris. As Harris and McEwen watched the Games, they considered what it would be like to participate in an event like that. It soon blossomed into “What if the event was police versus firefighters versus paramedics?” From there, the two officers were off and running.
“We thought it would be a great way to showcase first responders, promote them as athletes and also bring together the three services for a fun weekend. It became this octopus, and we kept sending out tentacles in every direction and it really morphed into a ‘festival’-type of feeling,” Harris explains.
There were many challenges to overcome. To start, Harris and McEwen had no credibility or formula to go off of. Questions they needed to answer included: what events are we going to do, how many events and how hard should it be? Harris and McEwen didn’t want this to become another CrossFit competition, because they knew it would scare a lot of people away. They wanted to make it a diverse competition with a wide range of athletes.
Next, they needed to find a venue. The two officers talked about logistics and finally decided on an indoor space, because October in Saskatchewan “can be too unpredictable.” Then, another challenge came in the form of finding the equipment for the obstacles and getting them to the venue.
How were Harris and McEwen going to get athletes to buy into this new event? “We were such an unknown product, and we didn’t want to reveal too much about what the athletes would be doing because we felt it may scare them off or intimidate them,” says Harris. “We were at a point where we almost had to shelve the idea for a year and try it again later, because we didn’t think we could get the numbers or the buy-in we needed.”
They needed money. They needed community support. They needed prizes, sponsors and donations. Essentially, Harris and McEwen needed everything. How were they going to pull it off?
The YXE First Responders Fitness Festival (YXE FRFF) was Harris’s and McEwen’s baby, but they knew they couldn’t do it all on their own. “We knew we needed people at the table from each profession,” Harris says.
McEwen knew paramedics Beaumont Sinclair and Nathan Rollack from her CrossFit gym, and when they were approached, they jumped on board immediately, both as competitors and as committee members.
Amy Buettner, a firefighter, was also approached and joined the committee as the fire service representative.
The event boosted morale within the first responder services because it brought people together for a common goal, people who otherwise may not have come together or gotten to know each other.
The committee recognized the importance of having a charitable component to the event.
McEwen had previously raised money for OSI-CAN, an operational stress injury/post-traumatic stress support initiative whose mission is to inspire hope and contribute to the continuous well-being and recovery process of veterans and front line protectors across Canada. “OSI-CAN seemed like an easy choice. We were creating a first responders’ event, and first responder mental health is such an important and prominent issue in today’s climate,” says Harris.
The team reached an agreement with OSI-CAN that, although the charity is a national charity, all the money that was raised—which reached over $25,000—would stay in Saskatchewan and go toward programming in the province.
This event was a success in a variety of ways.
First, the event boosted morale within the first responder services because it brought people together for a common goal, people who otherwise may not have come together or gotten to know each other.
The event featured 20 people from each service who participated in group workouts, motivating each other and helping each other out with equipment, diet, motivation, concerns, advice and more. “This event boosted pride in our participants’ jobs, because they knew they were representing their respective services,” says Harris. “We had athletes coming up to us and thanking us for letting them be a part of it. I know for me, when I was sitting around on the Sunday night after it was over, eating and drinking with participants from all three organizations, it made me really proud to be a first responder. I know others felt the same.”
The event also gave each athlete a sense of accomplishment and purpose. The event put athletes “through the ringer”, and they rose to the occasion. In addition, the first responders got the chance to show off in front of their families. “Every person should be proud of what they accomplished, how they carried themselves and how they represented their respective profession,” Harris says.
By hosting this event, police, firefighters and paramedics got to show how athletic they are, and how athletic they need to be to work in those professions. But it also showed the community that they are just regular people. “They’re people in the community who shop at the same stores, go on the same vacations, and eat at the same restaurants. They’re regular people at the end of the day. Many people just see the uniform first and the person second, and I think this helped to change that,” says Harris.
Similarly, the event showed each first responder the human side of their colleagues. “When we go to calls and see each other in the field, it’s always business first, or a horrible circumstance. By seeing each other in this environment, you get to know people for who they are rather than what they do. The next time you come across them, there’s a sense of familiarity, and it makes the interaction more positive overall,” Harris says.
The community support
To pull it all together, over 65 local businesses sponsored the event in some way. Donations ranged from equipment to money, prizes and time. “From having nothing at the beginning to seeing the support the community threw behind the event was awe inspiring. The support of people coming out and watching the actual event was an affirmation that we were doing a good thing,” says Harris.
There were massage and physio clinics offering free treatment for the athletes in between events. Food companies also donated meals for volunteers. “Everything we needed or asked for, the community stepped up and provided in some way,” Harris explains.
“We could not have pulled this off without the help of our wonderful team of volunteers. My in-laws flew in from New Brunswick to sell 50/50 tickets; people from the Special Constable rank all the way up to the Inspector rank were on the field acting as judges; we had members from corrections and spouses of members coming out to lend a hand, and more. It was incredible,” says McEwan.
Harris had some words of advice for others who may be interested in creating a similar event in their town. “Be organized. Be professional. Be committed,” says Harris. This became another full-time job for the committee members, and they put hundreds of hours of their own time into this event. Harris would recommend not doing anything second rate.
When the event was over, the team stood back and looked at each other in disbelief at what they had accomplished, says Harris. “Between the athletes who attended, the other first responders who came to watch and the esprit de corps this event accomplished, the whole overall vibe of the weekend can’t be overstated,” says Harris. “Our agencies needed something like this. The chiefs of all three agencies have asked that we do it again, which is ultimately the plan. The sense of wellness it promoted, both mental and physical, was also felt so intensely, we think every major city in Canada would benefit from an event like this.”
Print this page