Alex Rolle-Polk was running out of time.
Her hair was pulled back. Sweat dripped down her face. Her heart pounded against her ribs.
She had 10 minutes and 20 seconds.
It was the 28-year-old’s third attempt at the Candidate Physical Ability Test — the last test keeping her from becoming the first African-American female firefighter for the Alachua County Fire Rescue.
A 50-pound vest hugged her waist as she pushed through obstacles for the third time. At 5 foot 1, she lugged a 200-foot hose and crawled through a maze. As she dragged a 165-pound mannequin, she lost her right shoe, but she didn’t stop pushing until she crossed the finish line.
With 60 seconds to spare, she made it.
She slipped her missing shoe back on and smiled.
“I persevered,” she said. “I got through it, and I’m so glad I did.”
Rolle-Polk never thought she wanted to be a firefighter when she grew up.
As a child, she rarely saw woman in fire rescue gear — and never a woman of color.
“If you don’t see it or don’t hear about it, you don’t think about it,” she said.
But on Feb. 6, Rolle-Polk became Alachua County Fire Rescue’s first African-American female firefighter. She is just one of about 15 females out of more than 230 entry-level employees, firefighters and paramedics, said Karem Scott-Kotb, 30, the rescue's diversity recruitment officer.
Now, Rolle-Polk said she hopes to be that inspiration to girls of color.
“I just want to inspire girls to think outside of the box, to be something no one expects them to be,” she said.
People often underestimate Rolle-Polk.
At 5 years old, she wanted to join an advanced swimming class, but the instructor thought she was too tiny to succeed in the class.
“She can’t do this class,” the instructor said to Rolle-Polk’s mom, Angela. “You got to be able to swim from one side of the pool to the other.”
Without a second thought, Rolle-Polk jumped into the water and swam a perfect 50-meter freestyle stroke, her mom said.
The instructor never underestimated Rolle-Polk again.
“It’s mostly because of her size (that) nobody thinks she can do what she can do,” Angela said. “She’s just a tough little thing.”
Angela said she knew her oldest child wouldn’t be happy with a desk job.
But after she graduated from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University with a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy in 2011, Rolle-Polk ended up in a chair behind a computer screen, she said.
She started college wanting to be a trauma surgeon. Once she graduated, Rolle-Polk said she didn’t want to put herself through six more years of school. Even though she performed well, she wasn’t happy trapped in classrooms with only a professor and books.
After college, she stayed in Tallahassee and worked as a lifeguard for four years at Florida State University.
When she turned 26, she couldn’t stay on her parents’ insurance, so she needed a full-time job with health benefits.
Rolle-Polk wanted to join the Marines. She liked the strong teamwork that was associated with the Marines in the search for a greater purpose. But her mom cried and begged her not to go because she couldn’t imagine her daughter being on the first line of defense with bullets flying toward her.
“It didn’t make me feel comfortable,” her mom said.
Still in need of job, she saw a position open at the Florida Retirement System, which sets up retirement plans and survivor benefits for seniors. She worked the 8-to-5 job doing paperwork and managing files. She hated it.
After three years of a desk job, she wanted to be part of something memorable. Rolle-Polk said she remembered the firefighters she saw every day. They were a sense of hope for people, and Rolle-Polk wanted to be that hope for someone.
When she told her mom, she accepted her career choice and was happy her daughter would stay in the country.
After her mom’s approval, Rolle-Polk applied for Tallahassee Community College’s Fire Academy in May 2016 and was accepted.
In July, she started attending the fire school’s night classes 25 hours a week while still working full time.
At the school, Rolle-Polk went into simulated burning buildings, learned how to use air packs and how to deal with car fires.
The class started with 25 students and only one other woman, Rolle-Polk said. But the other woman dropped out early due to an injury, and Rolle-Polk found herself surrounded by men.
She said the men, even some of the instructors, assumed she was weaker and slower than them, but when she performed consistently during workouts, always in the middle of the pack, they were surprised she kept up.
“They’re were like, ‘Woah, she can actually do what I can and do it almost as fast as I can,’ and I think that changed a lot of their minds of what females can actually do,” she said.
By the time she graduated fire school in December, only 21 students remained, six were African American and Alex was the only female one of the top-performing students.
“That was very empowering,” she said.
After six months of rigorous physical and mental training, Rolle-Polk stood among 18 male firefighters in uniform.
Dressed in an all black, only the Alachua County Fire Rescue symbol patch bared any color of red, navy and white, as Rolle-Polk stood proud as her father pinned on her new badge.
On Thursday, Rolle-Polk and the new firefighter hires had their pinning ceremony. She held her right hand up and said her oath of service, ready for work.
ACFR Deputy Chief Harold Theus said he knew he wanted Rolle-Polk to come to the fire rescue just two minutes into his interview with her.
“She seemed like an individual who not only had passion but had poise,” he said.
Theus said he hopes Rolle-Polk will motivate more women to apply.
“She’ll be an example for the future,” he said. “I’m hoping that we continue down this path.”
With her first steps completed, on March 22, she’ll start at Station 25 in Hawthorne, Florida, and she’ll begin her emergency medical training on May 8.
She said the ceremony symbolized the start of her journey toward her dream of becoming the head rescue chief in Alachua County and to inspire other women to join the department.
But for now she’ll help people and fearlessly run into burning buildings.
“I’ll work till my body is not able to do it,” she said.
Contact Paige Fry at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @paigexfry