Vendelin wears pink and talks about breasts. Caught your attention? That’s exactly his goal. The ‘pink firefighter’ talks openly about breast cancer to shed light on the issue and promote prevention work. First a lone wolf, he’s no longer alone on his mission.
Trousers, jacket, helmet – all a shining, bright pink. Amidst the crowd of beige, black and red uniforms, this man really stands out. His name: Vendelin Cliques, 41 years old, fire officer from Versailles. He has just arrived following a seven-and-a-half-hour journey, which he took in order to take part in this year’s FireFit European Championships. “I’m not aiming for the winner’s podium or gold medals. I came to Hanover to stand out.”
Vendelin has been training for two years to meet the challenge of the FireFit obstacle course. It entails first conquering a twelve-metre-high tower in full firefighter’s gear – while carrying a 20-kilogram hose pack – then acing an obstacle course, which includes a human rescue operation featuring a 90-kilogram dummy. It’s a relentless course, where every participant rapidly reaches their individual limits. The best in the sport manage it in under one-and-a-half minutes. Vendelin isn’t one of the top athletes, but he tries to give his best each time. “That’s why I see a lot of parallels with the fight against cancer,” he explains. “The conditions are difficult, but you can’t give up. It doesn’t matter how much time it takes you. Keep going until you reach your goal!”
The disease that can affect anyone
“A friend of mine had both her breasts removed at the age of 30,” says the 41-year-old. Having part of her body removed in order to live – it’s a decision that affected him deeply. “Her courage inspired me as I was training hard for the FireFit challenge at the time.” So why not compete in pink? The contrast that he creates isn’t just about colour: Vendelin wants to increase awareness of the disease among his male colleagues. Statistically speaking, breast cancer affects one in eight women. “We all have a mother, sister or daughter. We all want them to live. That’s why it’s important we keep their health in mind.”
Vendelin first slipped into his pink uniform over one-and-a-half years ago. Gradually, his colleagues found out – initially, they smirked at it. “But when I told them about the statistics, many opened up.” The majority of his colleagues have been affected by deaths in their circle of family or friends. “That’s why we have to speak about it – about the fact that through self-prevention and early detection, we increase the chance of recovery,” says Vendelin, “and not just during the breast cancer awareness month of October, but throughout the whole year!”
Thanks to British Firefighter Challenge for the pictures!
Fighting the battle together
At the competition in Hanover, one thing was already clear to the firefighter: my team should grow! The plan: French, British and German teams with 10 campaigners each. Four months later, he established the international groups together with Pete Wakefield and Martin Schulz. Finding more allies should be easy for the trio: “All we do is wear our pink uniforms and talk about breast cancer. It’s unbelievable how deeply we can inspire people through this,” states Vendelin.
For the British firefighter, Pete, it was no different. He had invited the pink firefighter to be a guest on his podcast. With the words “I want to be part of your team,” expressed during the interview itself, Pete became a pink firefighter. The two met again at this year’s British Firefighter Challenge in October. And although the point of the individual race is to race against each other, they’ll run together. Pete, who’s actually much quicker, runs at Vendelin’s pace and ceaselessly motivates him. “He’s like a coach who exudes an unbelievable amount of positive energy. I’m happy to have him on board.” How long the race takes them is completely irrelevant – for Vendelin, the support of his allies is much more meaningful. “It’s important that we men raise our voices. But it’s also important that we have women on our team. That’s exactly what we’re looking for at the moment,” says Vendelin, explaining his future plans. “We’re not looking for the strongest runners, but rather those with the strongest hearts.”
In the meantime, Vendelin has been receiving questions from many different parts of the world. He wants to reach as many people as possible with his message. “Next year, I’d like to fly to the USA and take part in a stair climb challenge there.” His colleague Pete also has lofty goals for this year: to break the truck pull world record. As a pink firefighter, of course.