EAST MANATEE -- By all accounts, Chad Hoeksema is a pretty mild-mannered guy.
The East Manatee firefighter and Bradenton native's co-workers describe him as reserved, modest, soft spoken.
"He is the most quiet, laid- back guy," said Darlene Cacchiotti, secretary for East Manatee Fire Rescue. "His demeanor is not what you think it would be."
Not for someone who's officially one of the "toughest competitors alive," that is. But he has the medal to prove it.
Hoeksema finished fourth in his division at this year's Toughest Competitor Alive event, part of the 2013 World Police & Fire Games, held this past August in Belfast, Ireland.
The biennial games drew 7,000 competitors from 67 countries to participate in a variety of individual and team sports in what is essentially the Olympics for first responders.
The toughest event, of course, is Toughest Competitor Alive, which includes a 5K run, a 100-meter dash, a 100-meter swim, shot put, a 200-foot rope climb, bench press and pull-ups.
Oh, and then there's the obstacle course portion, which sees competitors go over a wall, run through tires, climb monkey bars and more.
"The competition was steep," said Hoeksema, 35,
who's been with East Manatee Fire for seven years.
And he would know. Hoeksema competed in the world games in 2009 in Vancouver and finished second in his division. He got shut out of the 2011 games in New York because participation was so high.
Hoeksema has also represented East Manatee Fire at the Florida Police and Fire Games, competing several times in its version of the Toughest Competitor Alive event and finishing first in his age bracket last summer in Fort Lauderdale.
But the international competition takes it to another level, Hoeksema said.
"It's like college sports to the professionals," he said.
And like the professionals, it takes a special level of dedication to succeed. That's why he poured a slab of concrete in his backyard to practice the shot put, a sport Hoeksema, a basketball player in high school at Bradenton Christian, never competed in prior to his first police and fire games. It's one of his strongest events, though, along
Hoeksema's training regimen was all over the place, he said, which is understandable given so many different disciplines involved, from long distance running to heavy weightlifting.
"You can't go all out on 5K training and ignore powerlifting," he said. "You don't want to get too heavy that you can't do pull ups."
Making his training even tougher is the odd shift schedules that come with being a firefighter, plus his family life with AnnMarie, his wife of 10 years, and their 3-year-old son, Xavier. But it took a good six months of steady training, he said, to get in shape for the world competition in Ireland.
He and AnnMarie made a vacation out of it, spending a week there to enjoy the sights in between events.
As for the competition itself, Hoeksema said he was impressed with its Olympic feel, including the opening and closing ceremonies and how each competitor displayed his country's flag for the thousands of spectators in attendance. The Spanish participants, especially, were "intimidating," Hoeksema said, competing as part of large teams complete with coaches and uniforms. Two Spaniards and an American finished ahead of him in the men's age 30-39 heavyweight division.
And like the Olympic Games, there's a sense of camaraderie among the participants, even more so because of their bonds as first responders. "You meet someone from the Ukraine, you're automatically friends," Hoeksema said.
Back at the State Road 70 fire station, where they already take health and fitness seriously, Hoeksema is a role model and an inspiration.
"Obviously, Chad takes that to another level," said Casey Lambert, an engineer who's worked with Hoeksema for about three years. "He sets the bar higher for us."
Hoeksema, of course, brushes that off in modest fashion. He's just proud to represent his department and his peers, he said, and is glad to have their support.
He hasn't yet decided if he'll compete when the World Police & Fire Games come back stateside, to Fairfax, Va., in 2015.
"It's really hard to train for," he said. "It takes a lot of dedication. But maybe."
Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.