LAKE WALES, Fla. - A single mother says she will never forget the wise words of her father and how he helped her make history as the first female deputy to become a member of the exclusive and highly trained SWAT team in Polk County.
Photo Gallery: Polk County's First Female SWAT Member
For Shanon Demarest to say fighting crime as a Polk County Sheriff's deputy is her dream job is an understatement, but it's a job the 28-year-old single mother and college graduate almost didn't get a shot at. When she learned she was pregnant, she put the academy on hold for four years. Demarest worked as waitress and then as a bank supervisor. She couldn't afford to go to the academy full-time and pay for daycare. But she remembers the day she received a phone call that changed her life.
She says, "My dad called me up and goes, 'I've got a deal for you. You give your two weeks notice, you move in with us, you put yourself through the academy and we'll help watch your son.' I said deal. I walked in there and gave my two weeks that day."
The life-long athlete heard about the Special Weapons and Tactics team, or SWAT.
There were no women on the team and the last one to try out missed making the cut by just one second and one pull up. The SWAT team's standards are set so high that the U.S. Army enlists their help training army reservists.
These tests include: a 1-mile run in under 12 minutes wearing "full gear," which consists of the SWAT uniform, combat boots, weapons, and a gas mask; a 30-yard timed low crawl in full gear; a 50-yard timed run in full gear, carrying a 50-lb. battering ram; clearing a 6-foot high fence in full gear; 3 pull-ups and 5 dips, timed, in full gear; 90 percent accuracy firing the agency-issued Glock; dragging the heaviest member of the SWAT team (who weighs approximately 300 lbs.) 15 yards; and running a simulated event while negotiating eight flights of stairs.
Candidates who do not successfully complete all of the tasks in phases one and two cannot move on to the final phase. Shanon Demarest was the first female deputy to complete phases one and two. She then moved on with the other 10 applicants to the final phase.
The final phase of the PCSO SWAT school is a 64-hour course. Day one begins with a 7-mile run, followed by tactical drills, more exercises, and classroom training. Days two and three also begin with several-mile runs, followed by officer safety training, building entry drills, and other SWAT tactics. Day four is the stress course, which exposes the candidates to chemical agents, and then measures their ability to overcome mentally and physically and still be able to perform tasks as experienced in real-world scenarios, such as shooting, low crawling, and negotiating physical obstacles.
On the last day of the final phase, all of the candidates must successfully negotiate the PCSO obstacle course, which consists of 20 obstacles.
Photo Gallery: First female SWAT member
Some of the training takes place while sirens are blaring and instructors are yelling at the top of their lungs. The training is not for the faint of heart, but is devised to help save lives when seconds count. Demarest was one of 15 attempting to make the cut. Only 11 made would make it through the training.
Demarest says she wanted no special consideration because she's a woman. "Because if I made the team, the guys I'm backing up, I want them to have faith in me. I don't want them to think 'I got the girl behind me.'"
And on the day her boss, Sheriff Grady Judd, made it official in front of her family and let the world know she'd made history, her proud parents were there beaming with pride. They supported her and pushed her to follow her dreams.
Demarest says she never would have made it without their support and the message her father taught her early on. She says, "Because he always told us that don't look at the money. Do what makes you happy cause, God bless my father, my dad was at a job he was absolutely miserable at, but he would always tell us, 'You know why I have to do this job? Because I didn't get my college degree. I have to stick it out here to put a roof over your head. Don't be like me.'"
Demarest turned 10 News down for an interview about this story at least half a dozen times. We tried for weeks to talk to her, but she didn't want to be in spotlight.
She says she credits a SWAT team instructor who took her under his wing, lieutenants and sergeants with the, department, and deputies that she didn't even know. She says all these people, as well as complete strangers, encouraged her.