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Pedaling from flames to gold

When Scott Crowell started his competitive cycling career several years ago, he knew it would be a challenge to make it big in an intense aerobic sport while running into smoke-filled, burning buildings for a living.

Crowell was up to the challenge. The St. Petersburg firefighter has been winning by using his "on 24 hours, off 48 hours" work schedule to develop a training and racing program that emphasizes power and speed.

Last weekend, Crowell used his skills to survive tough competition and crashes in winning three bronze medals and one silver at the Firefighter's Olympics in Key Biscayne.

"The criterium was fun," Crowell said, referring to the circular race course. He talked during a lunch break this week at Engine Co. 5. "I broke away with Glen Perone, the national Clydesdale (division) champion. He knew I was a sprinter, and we made a pact _ I wouldn't sprint him. The whole way he kept asking me not to sprint at the end."

Saturday's road race saw Crowell get caught up in a crash at mile 3, forcing him to chase for 22 miles. "I caught a group containing third through seventh places, and won that sprint to get the bronze. All the hard work paid off."

A former center for Boca Ciega High's football team, Crowell began cycling to get in shape, and went from 270 pounds to a lean 195. His Treasure Island condo is decorated with a mixture of state championship medals, toy fire engines, and other firefighting memorabilia from travels with his wife, Candee.

"The job is different," Crowell said. "You could be working out in the weight room or riding the rollers, and the bell goes off. You just drop everything and you go."

Engine Co. 5 is the most physically fit in the department, according to Crowell. "My shaved legs are the joke of the station. They give me a hard time, but, really, they're so supportive, always posting my racing results on the board. And the other shifts do a lot of swap time with me, enabling me to race. I couldn't get to the races without these guys."

When Crowell is on the schedule to cook, his fellow firefighters are treated to a healthy meal, such as vegetarian lasagna. "Yes, they do tease me about my cycling diet," said Crowell, who turns 30 next week. "One time the guys put tree bark in a bowl. I take a lot of ribbing, but they're always there for me."

Crowell's engine company gets 40 calls daily, among the two engines, two rescue trucks and the ladder truck. A member of the HAZMAT team (hazardous materials), Crowell goes out on calls dealing with fires, potential explosions and fuel spills.

"I think it's a good job, and I've been careful these past eight years," Crowell said. "I always try to wear my mask, and if I inhale any smoke, believe me, I know it the next day. I'll be coughing up smoke on the training ride."

Annual physical examinations and other tests keep St. Petersburg firefighters fit and healthy, Crowell said. "They give us step tests, flexibility testing, and monitor us pretty well."

Using his monthlong accumulated vacation time, Crowell will leave July 10 for Colorado Springs, Colo., and the United States Cycling Federation National Track Championships, where he hopes to make the top five in the sprints and kilometer race. Two weeks later, the World Police and Fire Games will be held in the Colorado Springs velodrome.

Crowell won bronze medals in the sprints and kilometer at the Florida State Track Championships in Broward County last month.

"Scott is dedicated, and spends lots of time and money on his cycling," said Lt. Don Masters, his boss. "You know, it's funny how competitive firemen are. There's no question _ just come outside the firehouse after 5 tonight and watch the basketball game outside. It's very competitive. I don't know why that is."

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