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Quiet Warrior: How CrossFit has helped one firefighter become the best he can be

Ryan Starling, an engineer and tactical medic, has made it his personal mission to be in the best possible physical condition in order to protect and serve his community


Starling gets up at 4 a.m. every day to train for two hours.

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Sponsored by 5.11 Tactical

By Sarah Calams for FireRescue1 BrandFocus

At 35 years old, Ryan Starling isn’t anywhere close to slowing down.

In fact, his sights are set on becoming the best possible version of himself by continually pushing to be in top physical condition.

From running cross country in junior high to playing baseball in college, Starling’s competitive nature translated effortlessly into his public safety career.

Starling, a San Bernardino County (California) Fire Department engineer and San Bernardino City Police Department tactical medic, started his career as a Cal Fire seasonal firefighter. After graduating No. 2 in the fire academy, he was guaranteed a spot at paramedic school – complete with a sponsorship. Once he started working as a paramedic, he then received a job offer from San Bernardino County Fire.

In 2015, he was the first on-scene tactical medic during the San Bernardino shooting, where he helped assess and triage victims. Since the incident, he now teaches active shooter classes to his colleagues as well as surrounding departments and agencies.

“I wanted to get up every morning, ride out and get to do something different every day,” Starling said about his career choice. “It was a new challenge. You have to come up with a solution to a problem. You always feel a sense of reward when you accomplish something as a team.”

And Starling is no stranger when it comes to teamwork.

Becoming physically fit

Starling, who played sports throughout his entire childhood into early adulthood, gets up at 4 a.m. every day to train for two hours. Once he’s finished with his workout, he leaves to go to work at 7 a.m. and starts his shift.

“I have an addictive personality and a little bit of ADHD. I don’t sit and watch TV. I’m always go-go-go.”

His department, which ran 12,050 calls last year, stays busy, too.

“We get a lot of fire calls, man-down calls and some random, crazy calls,” he said. “We stay really busy, and that means we have to be physically fit.”

Starling said it’s his goal to be in the best possible physical shape so that he doesn’t doubt himself during and after calls.

“We’re signing up to do this. Our job is demanding,” he said. “People are counting on us – it’s not our choice. I always say, as soon as you take the oath, you lose the right to be out of shape.”

Starling, a father to 9-year-old triplets, always thinks about how he would want his children taken care of if another responder were to help them in their time of need.

“If my son or daughters had to be rescued, I want the best, most physically fit firefighter helping them,” he said. “I’m staying fit for them. I don’t ever want to question anything, thinking, ‘Oh, I was so tired,’ or ‘They were so close, but I couldn’t reach the wall.’ I don’t ever want to have that ‘what if.’ I want to know that there is no one else out there that could have done a better job than what I did.”

When one of Starling’s childhood friends introduced him to CrossFit and its community, his competitive nature and fire service camaraderie went hand-in-hand with the grueling fitness regimen.

CrossFit accountability

Starling, who had worked out and lifted in the past, knew there was an extreme difference once beginning CrossFit workouts.

“They have these military-type workouts,” he said. “You can also see your times, compare it to other people, and you work your hardest to beat those times. You start training, pushing yourself and getting better. Soon enough, you start seeing results, and that in itself is enough motivation. That’s why CrossFit is successful.”


For firefighters who are wary of joining a gym or fitness program, Starling says starting something is the first step.

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Currently, Starling’s overall CrossFit worldwide rank is No. 9 in the men’s 35-39 division. By region, he ranks No. 2 on the West Coast and in the state of California. He will be headed to the CrossFit Games to compete against the best in the world this August.

A lot of firefighters, Starling says, compete in CrossFit games.

“You can look at guys your age, your profession, and you can see if you’re strong enough or fit enough,” he said. “It gives you that sense of pride and competition.”

At Starling’s department, firefighters are required to work out for an hour each day.

“Our shift does a lot of workouts together,” he said. “If I’m at work, I’ll pull up the CrossFit workout, and we’ll change and modify the circuits. We’ll partner up and do team competitions. It creates a bond and camaraderie.”

And in the spirit of competition, Starling says they make it interesting for the loser of the workout.

“We say, ‘OK, whoever loses today is doing the dishes,’ or, ‘If you lose, you have to cook.’ We’ve turned it into our own competition,” he said. “Most firefighters get into it because they were athletes prior to joining the fire service.”

For firefighters who are wary of joining a gym or fitness program, Starling says starting something – anything – is the first step.

“The biggest thing for people is that they just have to start,” he said. “They’re scared to start, fail and be embarrassed. Once you do something for 30 days, it becomes routine.”

Starling encourages colleagues and other firefighters to make a goal and stick to it.

“If you don’t have a goal, you have nothing to look forward to. You need to be able to push yourself,” he said. “Have a goal in mind, something you want to finish. If you don’t, you’ll just be going through the motions and be stagnant.”

In the long run, Starling says, remaining physically fit during your firefighter career also will allow you to retire the way you’ve always envisioned.

“What kind of life are you going to have after you retire?” he said. “If you’ve had a knee replacement here, shoulder replacement there, you won’t be able to play with your grandkids. The more physically fit you stay, then the better chance you have at a good retirement.”

Once retired, that’s all Starling wants – to be able to be there for his family and future grandchildren.

Staying motivated and never giving up

On days when Starling’s drive and determination seem to falter, all he has to do is look at his wife and three children to get up and keep going.

“I want to be the best possible dad. I want them to be proud of me,” he said. “When I’m doing competitions, I can hear their voices cheering for me. When I get tired and hear them, it keeps me going. I want them to see a good example of a dad, a firefighter and just a good man.”


Starling says working out has always been his way of releasing the bad and letting in the good.

Courtesy photo

Starling also makes it a priority to do one good deed every day while on shift.

“If I can help someone who’s less fortunate, give them some time out of my day, now they look up and respect firefighters,” he said. “You can make a big difference even in the smallest way.”

In most cases, people call on firefighters to help during one of the worst days in their lives. For Starling, he wants to be a problem-solver.

“We are there to fix their problem. When you can help, you’ve just made their day that much greater,” he said. “It could’ve been way worse, but now there’s a sort of cascade effect of paying it forward. That’s the coolest part of our job.”

However, the rewards of the job also come with stressors and hardships. And that’s where physical fitness, Starling says, comes into play.

“As firefighters, we see a lot of bad stuff. When you can go to the gym, it allows that release,” he said. “Lift some heavy weights, leave it all there. Go home, reset yourself.”

And while others may have different outlets for relieving stress, Starling says working out has always been his way of releasing the bad and letting in the good.

“Working out is great, because you get that endorphin release. You’re going to be stressed – don’t take it out on your family or anything else,” he said. “It will keep building and building if you don’t have a release. Whatever you do, don’t take that stress home.”