Keith Ashbury couldn’t talk when a reporter first called him for this story. He was at the gym, in the middle of another workout.
After power cleans and bench presses, pull-ups and tricep dips, he called back. He was ready for an interview about his upcoming appearance on “Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Challenge,” a reality TV show in which the 47-year-old Virginia Beach Fire Department captain will show viewers just how ridiculously fit he is.
Ashbury’s morning workout was over, but he wasn’t done for the day. Later Tuesday he would dress in full firefighter gear and run three rounds of stairs hoisting a 40-pound hose pack.
“I want to do my job at the highest level I can, and I need to take care of myself so I can take care of the people calling for 911,” said Ashbury, who is married and the father of two boys, ages 10 and 8. “I’m an advocate for firefighter fitness. That’s how I look at it.”
His cable TV appearance (8 p.m. April 24 on CMT) comes as Ashbury is being recognized for saving a life on the job in February. Later this month, he and Master Firefighter Joe Polozzi will receive city awards for valor for their actions on Feb. 13, when they entered a burning house and found and rescued a man who was trapped inside.
“The adrenaline was running pretty high,” Ashbury said Tuesday, recalling the moment.
On “Broken Skull Challenge,” he will be pitted against seven other contestants in an episode devoted to first-responders. In the show, Steve Austin, the actor and retired professional wrestler, puts athletes through head-to-head battles, with one getting a shot to win $10,000 in an obstacle course called the Skullbuster.
Ashbury said he applied to be a contestant and went through a lengthy screening process that included a Skype interview, three more rounds of interviews with casting agents, a physical, blood work and his signature on a 37-page contract. His episode was filmed in July in California.
Ashbury said the Broken Skull Challenge is even more difficult than it looks on TV.
“You’re not in an air-conditioned gym,” he said. “It’s dirty, 90 degrees out in a dry area of California. I was filthy when I came back.”
Ashbury’s contract forbid him from discussing how he finished, but he called it the “most demanding competition” he’s ever been in physically and mentally.
“It’s an experience of a lifetime,” he said. “If I had the opportunity to do it again, I’d be there as soon as I could.”
The 20-year firefighter is no stranger to intense physical challenges. He has competed in the Firefighter Combat Challenge for 16 years and is also a regular participant in CrossFit events.
Ashbury stressed the importance of being athletically well-rounded for Austin’s Broken Skull Challenge. To prepare for it, he focused on conditioning exercises, such as sprints up Mount Trashmore and running up hills carrying 40 pounds. He balanced endurance while cutting strength workouts in the weeks before the competition. A promotional bio from the show listed him at 6-foot-2 and 206 pounds.
The public will have to wait to find out if Ashbury won the show’s $10,000 prize. If he did, what would he do with the winnings?
“I love Las Vegas,” he said, laughing. “I’m dying to go.”
Soon, he’ll be getting recognized for his actions off camera.
The 911 call in February came in shortly after 4:30 a.m. for a house fire in the 200 block of Victoria Drive, near South Plaza Trail and Interstate 264. Ashbury and his Station 16 crew responded. They found a major fire spreading through the home. One of the owners, a woman, was in the front yard and said her husband was still trapped in the bedroom, according to a summary of the rescue provided by Fire Department spokesman Art Kohn.
In what the department called a high-risk rescue effort, Ashbury and Polozzi entered a first-floor bedroom window and immediately faced “extremely high heat and thick black smoke,” the summary said.
The account described what followed:
The firefighters’ thermal image camera went white from the high temperature, forcing Ashbury and Polozzi to search blindly. They quickly swept the room for the man and found him on the floor at the end of the bed. Ashbury and Polozzi turned to find the opening from which they entered but couldn’t tell exactly where it was. The beam from police officers’ flashlights shining in from outside helped guide them, and the two firefighters worked together to move the man toward the window. He was turned over to crews outside at 4:46 a.m., unconscious but breathing.
Ashbury said helping in situations like that is part of his job satisfaction.
“I’m just happy (the man) can spend more time with his family,” he said. “We just go to work and that’s what we want to do, and that’s what we did. Sometimes you’re not as lucky, but this time we were there at the right time and it worked out.”
He and Polozzi are scheduled to receive their awards for valor at an upcoming ceremony. Ashbury’s wife will accept the award on his behalf, however. He’ll be in Indianapolis for a Firefighter Combat Challenge.