The mental strength that is required to be an athlete or a fireman is just as important as physical strength. In this episode, John Livesay interviews “Fireman Rob” Verhelst who has a book out called Forged In The Fires. Fireman Rob goes over the seven catalysts that are going to allow everyone to ignite their life in a big way. He also takes a deep dive into the emotional control that’s needed and he had to learn while being a fireman as well as being in the Air Force. Learn his heroic stories of being part of the rescue efforts at 9/11 and how he believes there is no such thing as balance. You just have to prioritize your values. Enjoy the episode.
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Forged In The Fires With Rob Verhelst
My guest is Rob Verhelst, not just Rob, but Fireman Rob. He’s a dynamic storyteller with a unique iconic story that brings audiences to life when he’s a keynote speaker. He inspires the global community through his work as a fireman, but he also competes in Ironman races with 50-pounds of firefighter gear on him. He breaks world records like it’s people having breakfast and as if that’s not enough, he also delivers bears to children in hospitals throughout the globe. I’m not making this up. This is a real person. He is an impact leader and a speaker trainer. He impacts lives by showing how to believe that there are no challenges or fears that cannot be overcome with the power of purpose and a strong mindset. His clients have ranged from Fortune companies like 3M, Southwest Airlines, Timex and Kraft. The stories that connect him to audiences, they are always looking for a unique, genuine and down to earth presentation. That’s driven by his desire to have a positive impact on lives. He has a book coming out that I’m excited to talk about. It is all about Forged In The Fires: The Seven Catalysts to Ignite your Life. Rob, welcome to the show.
That was a lot. I’m already tired. Thank you for having me.
You have endless energy because you run with gear on. If anybody can handle that intro, it’s you because you’re living it.
It’s a great thing to be able to have a purpose and that’s what drives me forward every day. If you don’t wake up, if you don’t have the alarm clock telling you’ve got to do something.
You have such a strong purpose. You don’t even need an alarm clock. You’re excited to get into the day. That’s a whole other story. Tell us your own story of origin. Were you a little boy saying, “What’s that? I want a fire truck for Christmas,” or “I to want to be a fireman?” When did that journey start?
I’ve been in sports my entire life. I played basketball. My dad was my coach in high school. I played water polo and basketball in college. I’ve always been around those dynamic, physical activities as well as the mental side of the game. It wasn’t until I was in college, playing basketball and water polo that I was like, “I like education. I like learning, but this may not be for me.” I finished my degree, but I also went to the Fire Academy and got my firefighters certification. I was like, “This is what I want to do.” It’s the ever-changing environment that makes me excited to be able to do that.
You were a fireman. Are you not a fireman anymore?
No, I am.Hold on tight, everything's going to be all right. Click To Tweet
You’re juggling at this job, speaking and writing.
Like you always say, I have to get a better story. The more experience you have in life, the more stories you’re able to tell and correlate to what you’re talking about.
Let’s talk about you being the 9/11 rescue worker. I’m sure there’s a story there. Take us back to that day.
When I was 23 years old, I had gotten on the fire department. I was about a year in the fire department. I was working a shift in the morning. We had gotten back from a fire. This was back when radios were in the shower rooms. You had the old radios, not the XM radios. I was listening and I heard that the Trade Tower had been hit. I went down to the kitchen and we were watching on the TV. The second Trade Tower had been hit. Immediately after shift, I called on my rescue team and drove out there. We got there two days after the towers had fell because I’m driving from Wisconsin in my purple Saturn, it was a long drive. I didn’t know what to expect.
I’m 23 years old. I’d only been in the fire service for one year. You get out there and it’s a surreal experience. The best way I can say is it looked like a Hollywood set because they had these huge lights up. You couldn’t understand the vastness of it and the number of people that were on the pile that we’re searching for. The amount of emotion that went into that part of my life is immense. It changed my life forever and it continues to change my life from the little things that I remember that I had to change into positives to be able to continue to go. I didn’t know that I had developed PTSD from that and from my time in the military and the fire service.
There are a lot of things in my past and I wouldn’t change a single thing. I have medical problems from 9/11, but at the same time, I have a lot of positives that I took away. Everybody that day was working towards a common goal. It didn’t matter whether they were the welders that were crawling into holes that had never done it before, but they’re cutting off the rebar, firefighters that were working together from all different counties on bucket brigades to clear out areas to be able to search for people. It was a commonality that I don’t think we’ve seen. You could go back to even D-Day when many different people came together from many different venues of life and didn’t matter what the differences were. All they saw was the objective and they work together to find a positive of it.
Let’s complete that picture a little bit. Were you in the military before you became a fireman?
I sold the correlation so I went into the military after 9/11. It’s a lot of twists and turns. It’s choosing your own ending.
Normally people would go out of college or instead of college, go in the military, and you became a fireman. That’s the normal storyline we are used to. You became a fireman and 9/11 happened. You were involved in that you decided to join the military so you gave up being a fireman while you were in the service?
That’s correct. I came back to the fire service that I was in. It’s not a straight path. What people can relate to in my story is that I don’t have clear objectives. I’ve been married three times. There’s been a lot of failures in my life. At the same time, there’s a lot of directional changes that have impacted it. You can’t always go back and say, “I wish I didn’t do that,” or “I wish it didn’t do that,” because if you didn’t do that, it wouldn’t lead you to where you are now.
You had mentioned PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, from both 9/11 and the military. Did you start at 9/11 and what branch of the military were you in and for how long?
I was in the United States Air Force. I was in for a couple of years. There’s a common misconception with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that it’s not like a cold. You get it and then it accentuates. You can get numerous different things that’ll trigger your PTSD. That’ll trigger it, but at the same time can add to it. That’s the hard thing is in the fire service, we see a lot of individuals that are seeing traumatic situations and it’s compiling it. We always say it’s like putting boxes in your closet. You have round boxes, square boxes and oblong boxes.
Initially, when you start off in the service, you’re putting every box in the closet. You’re not caring which one’s on top of the other to make sure that it stays in there. Eventually, that closet gets so stacked with boxes that every time you open it, it collapses on you and that tears you down. You have to repack that closet and try to continue to move on with life. For myself, it’s continuing to make sure that the boxes are being stacked properly. That’s a daily process. It doesn’t go away. There’s no miracle cure. I always will have this within me. It’s part of my character.
What made you decide that you wanted to wear all this weight while doing all of these marathons? Usually, the marathon is more than enough of a challenge for most people. You’re like, “I want to carry 50 pounds of gear around me.” Was it a visual thing, a mental thing?
It’s a crazy thing partially. On top of it, I had been struggling for several years. I was not finding my purpose, not finding who I was. I was lost. On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, it landed on Ironman Wisconsin, and I’m from Wisconsin. I was like, “I want to do something that through my actions I can show people how powerful that day was to me and continues to be for me.” At that time, I wasn’t speaking about it. I wasn’t talking about the emotions of it. The best idea I came up with was to wear 50 pounds of fire gear after doing a 2.4-mile swim and a 112-mile bike.
The first time I did it, I did a trial run at Racine, Wisconsin. It was 110 degrees with the heat index that day that I did the trial run. I got onto the run portion. It was so hot that I kept questioning myself. I was going, “This is dumb. Who would ever do this?” I got out on about 3 miles in and I had a gentleman come over and gave me a hug. He said, “I’m an FDNY firefighter who retired. I want to thank you for being out here.” It’s moments like that when you put yourself out there and have other people show you that your purpose or your passion that you’re going after is valid. It’s something that you should keep going after even if you don’t see the finish line.Your strength is in your passion. Click To Tweet
You’re all about resilience and that certainly is an example of that. What lessons do you have in your book from being a firefighter, being a 9/11 rescuer, and being in the Air Force? There must be some big a-ha that all of those experiences have taught you about resilience. Not giving up when it’s hot in this race, but is there an overall arching takeaway for the audience and people who read your book?
I always say your strength is in your passion. A lot of people look at passion as a soft topic. Realistically in the last few years, it’s become a hard topic because passion is what drives people and it’s personal. It’s what drives people to own up to their decisions or actions. It’s what drives people to make decisions. On top of it, you can be resilient if you have that budding goal of being passionate. I would say if your strength is in your passion, you have to go out there and live it. You can’t wait for somebody else to tell you this is what you should do. That’s the overarching message. I talk about seven different catalysts. It’s not like I created something brand new. I tell you about the stories of why these are important because I lived this message and it wasn’t something that I researched or anything like that. It was something that I lived. That’s more personal to people.
The audience is going, “John, ask him what the seven catalysts are.” Why don’t you tell us what they are? We might double click on one and hear a story that goes with it.
The seven catalysts start with passion and purpose. That’s the beginning. It goes to ownership. It goes to decisions, emotional control, resilience, faith over fear and you end with mental strength.
Let’s talk about mental strength. Tell me a story about mental strength since you clearly have physical strength. How do the two relate?
When people say 110%, that’s when you have that mental strength. Your physical strength can only go so far because your body will tell you no. The story I was telling mental strength, my dad passed from cancer in June 2019 and he was my role model. He was my rock.
In fact, you have a quote from your dad. Let’s hear what your dad’s quote was to honor his legacy.
My dad said, “Control the controllables.” I live by that. It’s hard to live by that. It’s something we always try to control things outside of us because they stress us out or they make us not focused on what our angle is. Control the controllables, I used the year that I went for the world record of 23 Half Ironmans in one year. My dad was there for most of them. It was in the moment when pain is there and it’s always there and the dark moments. I’m out on those courses for eight hours on the Half Ironman. That’s a long time to be by yourself especially when you have demons in your head.
Remembering my dad’s quote to control the controllables, I was able to take a perspective. I had my wife do this when she did her first Ironman. I said, “Instead of focusing on what hurts, think about what doesn’t hurt.” Sometimes it’s only like your right eyelash or my left big pinky toe. It takes your mind off and makes you laugh for a second. You’re controlling what you can control. You can’t control the pain, but you control where your mind is going to go and the positivity that your mind can bring.
This quote you have in your book that your dad would always say you can’t control what someone else does, control what you do. Now you’re getting to be that. You have three children. What are you passing on to them?
The greatest thing to pass on to your kids is what you do through your actions. That’s one of the great stories. I help this charity called myTEAM TRIUMPH. What they do is they help disabled individuals to do endurance races because nobody has said that they were able to do it. You push them through the races. They’re called the captains. The people that help are called the angels. I had done a few races. My wife and I had done a few races where we were angels for a captain. My kids came up one time and they said, “We want to do one. We want to push.” I was like, “What?” They’re like, “Yeah, we want to push.” I found a race that we were able to do and all five of us helped push a little eight-year-old boy with MS through this race. It was then and there that I realized as parents we’ll say a lot of things to our kids. It’s truly what you do, your actions that will translate to their character, to what they do in the future and to how they act to other individuals.
One of the questions that come up for me that people might be wondering is you must have some time management skills. To be a fireman full-time, write a book, have a podcast, speak, run these amazing races and do charity work plus being a dad and husband, how does one do all of that?
It comes down to support. I have good time management skills. I’m a good calendar maker. A lot of the guys in the firehouse laugh at me because I do to-do lists and calendars all the time. It’s also the support system. I won’t be able to do this without my parents, without my wife and without my kids being okay with me finding myself by doing these races or helping others by going to speak and do seminars. The biggest thing for time management is life prioritization. A lot of people talk about balance. There’s no such thing as balance. You can’t do 100% of one thing and do 100% of another thing at the same time. It’s not tangible. You are making sure that in your life you have priorities and that you stick with those priorities. That’s the key to making sure that your present.
When you’re with your kids, you’re fully present. When you’re fighting fires, I’m assuming you’re fully present. Certainly, when you’re wearing a lot of gear, you probably are completely present when you’re doing a triathlon or whatever.
The hardest part with the triathlons, it’s interesting because it’s hard enough to do the triathlons and I add in the extra component. I realize why I’m out there. I’m out there to inspire and impact people. When somebody says that they want to tell me a story, it doesn’t matter if I’m tired. It doesn’t matter if I’m in pain or I don’t feel like hearing it. It’s one of those things where I have to be engaged at that moment. I have to be that person that’s bigger than the moment.
One of the other catalysts that I’m fascinated to ask you about is emotional control. We all get triggered from time to time. Somebody says or does something we think is unfair, unreasonable, or you name it and we get angry. What lessons have you learned that other people can learn about this emotional control?Life does not get easier, we have to get stronger. Click To Tweet
One of the big things is that people have to understand those negative thoughts are inevitable. They’re going to happen. You’re going to feel those. What’s manageable is your reaction to those. Being present in the situation, understanding what the emotion is that you need critical. I’ll tell you a story about a race that we did for myTEAM TRIUMPH. I was doing it in full firefighter gear and I was pushing an individual. It was in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It’s a marathon. It’s a great race. We got about halfway through. There are some police officers doing in full gear. It’s not as impressive because it’s lighter.
One of them was slower and so I said, “Why don’t you come with me? We’ll make it to the end.” Here it is. Picture this, a police officer, full uniform, firefighter, full uniform. He’s about thirteen years old in a stroller. We’re going down this street and this lady comes running down the street. She goes, “Where have you been?” I’m thinking, “Are you kidding me?” This is where I talk about emotional control because, at the time, I could have yelled at her and said, “Are you serious? It’s 90 degrees out. I’m in full gear. It’s going to take me a while.” I didn’t because you’ve got to be present at the moment. This lady continues to run up to us and says, “Where have you been? I called you an hour ago.”
If she has a fire emergency, she’s not criticizing you for running slow.
She called 911. She continued and says, “A squirrel fell out of a tree and broke his leg. We have them in a shoebox by the tree.” I don’t know where the disconnect of, “We don’t go in trucks and police cars anymore. We push people and run to the emergency.” At that moment, I had to have the emotional control to pun her off on the officer behind us so that Jacob could finish his first marathon ever being pushed. I talk about emotional control and the fact that you have to gauge a situation. What is your end goal? Is your end goal to argue? Is your end goal to be right? Is your end goal to listen?
Do we want to be right or do we want to be happy? I see many times in social media post, someone will say, “John, you’re moving to Austin. How come?” I said, “One of the reasons is there’s no state tax on income like there is in California.” That starts a whole conversation on social media, “The property tax is high.” Somebody says, “You should rent then.” I was like, “Why does everyone feel the need to be right? Who cares?” I’m not getting into a debate over state income tax. You see the backend of that. What’s crazy is two friends of mine who don’t even know each other are arguing about who’s right. It’s the theory of what’s a good place to invest in or live in. I’m like, “What is up with this need to be right?” That our egos are sensitive that we can’t say, “That’s your opinion, whatever,” and move on. Clearly, there’s self-esteem stuff going on. When you’ve got a life of purpose and you’re exercising and you’re getting out of your head, which exercise does for us, even if we’re not doing it at this extreme level you are. It allows us to be more present and to listen versus needing to be right. Who is the ideal audience you hope reads your book?
I would say the ideal audience is the individual. The perfect audience would be individuals who want to lead their own life. That’s a broad spectrum, but at the same point, it’s speaking to those people that go, “I haven’t found that path or I’ve found a path, but it doesn’t seem like the right one.” Reading this book, it’s one of those things that offer you reflection points and offers you action steps at the end of things. It’s short. I’m a fireman, I’m not a novel reader. I made it short. It’s short segments. There are stories that tangibly put it to understand what I’m talking about when I talk about passion, when I talk about ownership, and so you can put yourself in there. I tell people to write in my books. You’ve got to write in them because if you have ideas or things like that, this is your manifest to be able to figure out how to lead your life.
What’s the one takeaway you want an audience to have after they hear you give a keynote talk?
When I give a keynote talk, the one takeaway that I want people to understand is that their life doesn’t get easier. They have the opportunity to get stronger by following their passion and purpose.
Our life doesn’t get easier. We have to get stronger through passion and purpose. The concept of our comfort zone, it’s one that’s like, “I’ll get to this level and then I don’t want to grow anymore,” and “Things aren’t easy. The plane is delayed,” or “I’m stuck in traffic,” and all the little things that happen. If you have the mindset that, “This is too hard. This is not easy,” then you’re never going to be happy, first of all, at the moment, let alone live your passion. You’re living an example of how we can all take these lessons without necessarily needing to be forged in the fires as you have, but we can learn from them. When we do face our own version of a fire, we’re now more equipped with these seven wonderful catalysts that you’ve given us so that we can ignite our best life.
I love that you said the fires in which we live in because when I put Forged In The Fires, I always say to sales groups, a salesperson is in a fire environment every single day when they go out to sell because it’s economics. You’re in a fire sale. You’re trying to get somebody to buy something.
Any last thoughts you want to leave us with either from your own book, your own talks or something else from your wonderful dad?
I’ll leave you with one more quote from my dad. I had it made into a tattoo. I also have a picture of him on that tattoo of him and me embracing at the end of Ironman Arizona. He usually was the guy that didn’t want to go to the finish line. He would be the guy that would be three miles from the finish, take me to a mile from the finish and that was his happy point. You take from that is that we can all boost somebody else up and let them have that great finish. This finish was with my dad and his quote is, “Hold on tight and everything will be alright.” If you hold on tight to your passion, if you hold on tight to your support crew, if you hold on tight to who you are as a person, everything’s going to be all right.
We’re holding onto our values, our passion and our focus. Rob, thank you for being you and serving the country in both a fireman and in the Air Force and now writing this wonderful book, Forged In The Fires. People can follow you on social media. Give us your social media handles.
Thanks, Rob. You’ve been a great guest.
Thanks for having me on. It’s been a pleasure.
- Forged In The Fires
- myTEAM TRIUMPH
- Robert “Fireman Rob” Verhelst – Facebook
- Robert Verhelst – LinkedIn
- @FiremanRobStrong – Instagram
- @TeamFiremanRob – Twitter
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