The Race That Never Ends


It’s still cool when the late-morning sun begins to burn the fog off the hills surrounding Camp Smith, an army base in Peekskill. Five men, all around 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, take their places on the 25-yard line of a firing range. So does 5-2 FBI special agent Cindy Coppola. Her bulletproof vest wrapped around her chest, Oakleys and ear protectors snug around her ponytail and bangs, she places a toe on the line between pavement and gravel, as if she’s ready to start running suicides. When the trainer gives the word, all six lift their arms and fire their guns.

After squeezing off 50 shots from various distances, Coppola signs her cardboard target, takes it out of its metal frame, and studies it with an air of dissatisfaction. Forty-eight holes lie inside the head and torso outline. Two shots sit just outside.

“That means I scored 96,” Coppola says. “It’s not good enough for SWAT. I need 98 or 99, but I’ll be back out here a few more times before tryouts.”

It’s hard to doubt her. When she’s not fighting Italian and Albanian organized crime, Coppola is an adventure racer. When she’s not in a race, she’s obsessive about training for the next, or for a marathon or triathlon between big events. By 38, many women athletes are content to live with walking, Pilates, or Tae-Bo. Coppola lives by the motto on a T-shirt she’s worn: “You can quit when you die.”

The slogan was coined during her first of three Eco Challenges, the most recent of which took place late last year and began a TV run earlier this month on the USA Network and outlets around the world. Ecos, as they’re called, are considered among the most grueling races ever conceived, and last year’s race in Fiji may have been the toughest yet. Rumor has it the Fiji race was especially tough because race creator Mark Burnett (of Survivor fame) heard the 2001 race in New Zealand was considered too easy. Gossip aside, only 23 of 81 teams finished the Fiji race. The teams that finished took six to 10 days to navigate 500 kilometers of jungle, rivers, a waterfall, the ocean, and canyons.

Cindy’s team, BDA Extreme, was one of the first casualties—in fact, it finished second to last.

Why? Well, an airlift out of the jungle recorded for airing on TV worldwide is awfully embarrassing for a hardcore athlete, but without too much prodding, Coppola talks about what became known as the Eel Incident. Walking in a creek bed to avoid the jungle brush, she stepped into a pool of water and felt something wrap around her leg and bite her. It felt like a jellyfish sting, but much more intense. Her leg started to swell, and she went into anaphylactic shock in reaction to the bite. Her four-person team wanted to radio for help, but they couldn’t get a signal from the creek. So they hiked 20 minutes up a hill, while Coppola’s leg continued to swell. At the top she endured three hours of alternately vomiting and nodding off before a helicopter arrived.

After a week recovering in Fiji, she returned home to Jersey City. One week later, she ran the New York Marathon in 3:40, not her best, but good enough to qualify for the next big marathon. Even without an eel bite, many runners would kill for her not-best. Coppola is on that border between a professional elite racer and an upstart amateur. She does know, however, that she’ll never be the next Paula Newby-Fraser, the legendary ironwoman and triathlete.

“Maybe you realize your limitations, and maybe you realize that people out there are better than you,” Coppola says. If she trained full-time, she figures, she could be twice as good. But she adds, “You put it in perspective. You do your job. You work out, see family and friends. I don’t give up anything for my sports.”

The Eco alone brings her a certain exclusivity. “Everyone at work knows that sports are my thing,” she says of her FBI colleagues. “There are a lot of people there who stay in shape. They do triathlons. They lift. They run. No one else does the Eco Challenge. They’re always breaking my chops over what I did over the weekend.”

A little chop busting doesn’t seem to bother Coppola, who is accustomed to working out with men and even beating them. She does it through constant training. During cadet school, she’d run by herself and run again later with struggling cadets. By graduation, she tested better than any-one else in physical fitness. Her friend Dave French, who competed with her through school, says she’s way more fit than he is. He’s stronger and faster because of his size, French says, but she can always beat him in sit-ups or a marathon. However, overall strength becomes important when you compete for a spot on the SWAT team against a field of Dave Frenches. Coppola took the test before 9-11 and became the first woman to pass, but her score didn’t rank high enough for her to be selected.

The lure of being part of a team, however, is strong. Coppola won a scholarship to play field hockey and lacrosse at Michigan State in the 1980s. Ask her about those days, and she recalls the family feeling of eating at training tables and lifting weights next to future Giant linebacker Carl Banks. Rich Kimball, Coppola’s field hockey coach, says many of her teammates shied away from lifting next to the guys—but not Coppola. She loved weights as much as she loved beer, and her drive inspired teammates to work out. “She wasn’t six feet tall or even 5-11—in order to survive on the field, she realized she needed to get stronger,” he says. “She always did a great job of outworking her opponent.”

After graduating in 1986, Coppola peddled computers and did bodybuilding on the side before disillusionment set in. She recalls thinking, “Someone’s judging you, saying your body is better or worse than someone else’s. It’s not like crossing the finish line first. And I never wanted to be some giganto muscle chick. Then I went into triathlons.”

Going from triathlons to adventure racing was a natural progression for a former team competitor. And to Coppola, an FBI job seemed like the right career: Agents wouldn’t be riding from one doughnut shop to another but would be fit and ready to act. She tried out first in 1991 but was a victim of a hiring freeze. Once bitten, twice shy? Not Coppola. When she was invited back for another tryout in 1996, she jumped at the chance. Like at Michigan State, she feels part of a team, and now she has her sights on the next one: SWAT.