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On this freezing Sunday morning in January, the New York Sports Club is the last place anyone would want to be. Outside, an icy wind whips through the deserted, snow-clotted Financial District. The gym is mostly empty, an expanse of abandoned elliptical machines, dotted with one or two diehards working at half-speed. All of them are politely trying not to stare at the main event transpiring at the center of the room: five women being run at top speed through a brutal workout by two people who won't stop yelling.
"Are you kidding me, ladies?" shouts Sarinya Srisakul. "You can't stop!"
Srisakul, in her thirties, has black hair, a cheery pink workout top, and a forbidding expression. A nine-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department, she has just come off a 24-hour shift. She and the rest of her engine spent all night pumping out a basement flooded with eight feet of water. She hasn't slept in over 30 hours. Her voice is hoarse, and getting hoarser by the minute as she hollers threats and encouragement at the five women running on the treadmills in front of her.
"Do not hold on!" she shouts at one, who quickly lets go of the treadmill bar and picks up the pace. And to another: "Are you fricking kidding me? You're walking to the end? Let's go!"
Slideshow: Women Prepare for the FDNY Entrance Exam
These women want to join the tiny sisterhood Srisakul is part of: the women of the FDNY, who make up less than one-half of 1 percent of the department's active-duty firefighters. There are 37 female firefighters in the department, alongside some 10,500 men. No two women work in the same firehouse. The most women who ever served in the department at one time is 41.
That was 30 years ago.
The obstacles for any woman — or man — hoping to join the fire service in this city are exceedingly high. Applicants to the FDNY's Fire Academy on Randall's Island must pass a written exam and the standardized Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT), and they must also run a mile and a half in under 13 minutes. Once they make it into the academy, they'll be known as "probies," or probationary fighters, a designation they keep for 18 months. To graduate, they have to make it through another battery of physical tests, including some that Srisakul argues blatantly discriminate against women.
But right now she's focused on getting these five women past their first hurdles and into the academy. She's joined by Thompson Plyler, a ludicrously fit, relentlessly cheerful former Marine turned physical trainer who shouts things like, "Feels great, doesn't it?" when it clearly does not.
As soon as the women finish their run, Plyler allows them a minute to cool down. Then the real workout begins: rapid-fire pushups and sit-ups, followed by circuit training, which the women do while wearing 50-pound weight vests to help simulate the 75 to 100 pounds of gear a firefighter wears on the job.
"Down, down, down!" Plyler shouts, as the women go into their pushups. "Why are you in disarray?"
"You should be able to do this!" Srisakul adds.
Almost every drill focuses on building upper-body strength, an attribute the FDNY's testing emphasizes. In one exercise, the "sled tow," Srisakul and Plyler pile 135 pounds of weight onto a platform, then attach a rope. The women have to drag the weight 20 feet across the floor, then push it back at top speed. They do deep lunges with 50-pound sacks slung across their backs. They hoist a barbell in the air, and do as many pull-ups as they can.
Meanwhile, a latecomer is ordered to hustle up and down the stairs as fast as she can, wearing her weight vest and holding two 25-pound kettlebells. She keeps slowing down. Srisakul is not having it.
"You keep going until we tell you to stop," she says flatly. "You came late. That's what you get." Nearby, the woman doing pull-ups cries out in pain around her fifth one. Most of the women get through a few pull-ups; one can't complete any.
"They're at different levels, as you can see," Plyler says. In a normal training session, he explains, he'd take it slow, working with what a particular individual could handle. But since the test doesn't change and everyone will have to lift the same weight, "the best we can do here is make sure they're doing it safely."
The workout continues for two relentless hours, until finally Plyler and Srisakul bring everyone back to the center of the room.
"How'd that feel?" Plyler asks merrily. The women give him tired thumbs-up.
"If you're falling behind, you have to put in extra effort during the week," he says, turning serious. During a real fire, he says, "If you're falling behind, you're a liability."
"Wherever you go, you will be the only girl," Srisakul adds. "Everyone will be looking at you to fail. You know that." The women all nod and file out silently. They'll be back two days later for another round.
How many women are in the NFL?" Paul Mannix asks. He's a pale guy, 50 years old, with faded freckles and rusty reddish-brown hair. On a recent morning, he's wearing a bright blue turtleneck and pounding on a sheaf of notes for emphasis. "Women in general cannot compete with men in physical competition. We'll recognize that in something as trivial as sports, but they want us to ignore it for something as important as firefighting." He snorts in irritation.