A highly accomplished individual whose legacy extends beyond athletics, Carla King Penman is a true phenomenon. Raised in British Columbia, she is the proud holder of numerous records at the World Firefighter Combat Challenge, adding to the growing relevance of women competing.
Such a legacy has raised awareness about the role of women in firefighting, one that Penman takes seriously. Her efforts as a mentor for young women considering a career in the profession have ensured that any future growth in the number of female firefighters in Western Canada holds outstanding potential.
Prior to a career in firefighting, Penman already established herself as an accomplished athlete. During the 1990s, Penman was a hardcourt sensation for British Columbia’s Capilano College, where she was a four-time team MVP. In the aftermath of the 1996-97 basketball season, she was one of ten honored women that were named to the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association All-Canadian team.
Such strong leadership would translate into a rewarding career as a firefighter. Currently a Lieutenant in the District of North Vancouver, Penman was the first female fighter on the North Shore, setting a positive example for other women to follow in a traditionally male-dominated profession. Possessing 19 years of experience, her empowering legacy is complemented by an inspiring run of remarkable performances at Firefighter Combat Challenges, nationally and internationally.
Disciplines include a demanding course where competitors not only scale several flights of stairs; they do so carrying a hose in excess of 40 pounds. In addition, races can include the carrying of a dummy which weighs no less than 175 pounds.
Taking into account that all disciplines include the donning of the full firefighting gear, pushing the physical and mental limits of the competitors, it is an event worthy of admiration. One which certainly presents scenarios that these courageous individuals may come across in the line of duty.
As a side note, Penman has also engaged in the fitness phenomenon known as Cross Fit. Not only does it allow her to maintain general conditioning, but it provides a pleasant form of competition. Participating out of the Canada West region, she is one of the 500 fittest women in global Cross Fit competition over the age of 40.
Part of Penman’s legacy in Firefighter Challenges includes a first place finish in the mixed tandem competition at the 2013 Canadian nationals in Edmonton, Alberta. Competing with fellow District of North Vancouver fire fighter Matt Ciofli, their efforts culminated in earning the opportunity to compete at the World Championships in Las Vegas.
The experience would set the stage for an even better year to follow. In 2014, the World Firefighter Combat Challenge XIII in Phoenix, Arizona was a true coming out party for Penman. Not only did she set a world record time for female competitors over the age of 40 on Day 4 of the competition, the day prior, she set the new female tandem record.
Competing with Amber Bowman from Central York Fire Services (located north of Toronto), the finest competitive female firefighter of her generation, the two would collaborate on a new world record in the Female Tandem World Championship, setting a superlative standard at 1:54:14.
This remarkable duo would also join Jalene Cartwright for the chance to run the female competitive relay, capturing another world championship. Bowman and Penman would show tremendous sportsmanship and compassion by allowing Cartwright to keep the commemorative plaque that acknowledged their championship.
“The female tandem world record and the world champion title is the title that is most special to me. It is two Canadian women who have raced “against” each other so many times- teaming up together and accomplishing so much.
We originally broke a very long standing world record and have continued to defend it. The amazing part is we have managed to maintain that record and title with several “less than perfect” races. I am excited to see what kind of a time we can race if we ever put a flawless effort together.”
Akin to Penman, Bowman experienced her own athletic glories prior to firefighting. An essence of her strong competitive drive and desire stems from an accomplished ice hockey career. Having served as a captain with the Ohio State Buckeyes women’s ice hockey team, she would also compete in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League with three different teams, finishing her career as a member of the Toronto Furies.
While Penman has finished in second place to Bowman in the individual races at past Canadian national championship, such competition is one based on mutual respect. Such respect has resulted in a collaborative effort that has seen them unstoppable together.
“Amber Bowman has been an enormous influence in my racing career. Having finished in second place to her in several Canadian and World championships, she has obviously been the athlete I have been striving to beat.
Without her beating me in all those races, I am sure that I would have been satisfied with my times and I would never have pushed myself so hard every single practice to try and close that gap between us. I am so much faster now for that reason.”
While the two qualified for the 2015 edition of the World Firefighter Combat Challenge, held in Montgomery, Alabama, it may have proven to be their most inspiring effort yet. Despite the breaking of records, both endured their own personal challenges.
In May 2015, Bowman suffered a concussion, jeopardizing her opportunity to compete, plus her exceptional streak of four straight world championships. Showing the character that made her a world champion, Bowman was medically cleared to compete at the 22nd Canadian Firefit Nationals in Kitchener, Ontario, approximately 92 kilometres southwest of Toronto. The result was that Bowman became the first woman in the world to break the two-minute barrier in the women’s individual race.
Despite Penman enjoying a podium finish in the women’s individual category at the 2015 Canadian nationals, joining Bowman and Karla Cairns from the Swift Current Fire Department; she felt it was an opportunity for improvement. Seeking consultation with Bowman, it was a great sign of maturity, recognizing that one never stops learning
“Amber has the heart and drive of a champion. She knows how to win. My performance at Canadian Nationals this year was inconsistent. I was disappointed in my performance and I knew it was 100% a mental breakdown rather than a physical one.
Amber and I talked about mental training; she recommended some books for me to read. As well, she shared some of her mental strategies. One month later, I raced at worlds and ran my personal best, which also broke the over 40 female world record.
At worlds, Amber and I also raced together on the female relay team. She is the natural leader and the voice of confidence when we all have the pre-race nerves. When someone like Amber has that fierce competitive nature, it forces the rest of us to do the same or get left behind in the dust.”
In the aftermath of World Firefighter Combat Challenge XIV at Montgomery, Alabama, the results speak for themselves. Penman set a new benchmark for fastest time by a female competitor over 40 with a finish of 2:22.
With such momentum, a highly motivated Penman joined Bowman for the female tandem race. The outcome was a rare feat that saw them break the world record for the second consecutive year. Finishing with a time of 1:48.20, it was over five seconds quicker than last year’s record finish.
Not only did Bowman and Penman finish the competitive season with a new world record, they also hold the Canadian record. Perhaps the bigger victory was the fact that the 2015 Canadian nationals saw a record number of female participants. With 60 Canadian fire departments represented at the nationals, 13% of the competitors were women. It would come as no surprise if many of these women were inspired by the likes of Bowman and Penman to compete and continue to break barriers.
For women in the profession, of which the average throughout North America is less than 5%, respect and equality present obstacles just as challenging as those in the competitive courses at the nationals and worlds. For a strong woman such as Penman, she is helping to set a gold standard for younger women to emulate, as such a brave and noble profession should be welcome for all.
In 2011, Penman and fellow female fighter Jenn Dawkins founded Camp Ignite, a registered non-profit operation based in Vancouver that has received grants. While ignite can mean to burn something, it also carries a motivational meaning. There is no question that said meaning reflected Penman and Dawkins’ own motivation, as ignite can mean inspiring someone to be enthusiastic about attempting something different.
Open to girls in Grades 10-12, the four-day camp is run entirely by female fighters, a sign of encouragement for young women considering a career in the profession. An important educational resource, its greatest value may be the instilling of confidence and self-esteem in young women, teaching them that they can do anything they like.
Among Penman’s other proud accomplishments in this area was her role as Chief of Camp at Whitehorse’s Camp Ember. A female-only firefighting academy in Yukon Territory, where women comprise 23% of volunteer firefighters there, the empowering presence of Penman provides them with a role model to emulate and aspire to.
“For women considering a career in Fire Fighting, I always advise them to learn as much about the career as possible. It is an amazing career and extremely rewarding, but it is definitely not for every woman.
There are many more opportunities available these days for those who will have this career in their future, compared to when I was first exploring the possibility. There are many female camps and Academy type programs that give young women a taste of fire fighting.
Also with many more women serving in the fire service now, it is common to connect with one of them as a mentor. One can visit fire stations and talk to fire fighters, and find out what they love or what they dislike about the job.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”