Northside fire captain noted for physical strength, mental toughness

Photo credit: Clip Lipson/CBS Kalimba Edwards from the CBS series “Tough As Nails.”

Growing up in tiny Wallace, Nebraska—an area known for ranching, railroads, and “Buffalo Bill” Cody—wasn’t for the faint of heart, especially for Kalimba Cobb Edwards. It was the early ’80s, and she and her brother were the only non-White people in town, let alone the entire county.

Despite the typical challenges associated with being a minority, Edwards views her childhood experience in a positive light. “I grew up with small-town values, where ranchers, farmers and their kids worked hard,” she said. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.” 

At one point during high school, Edwards was holding down five part-time jobs, including working at her mother’s daycare business, while also excelling as a year-round athlete. 

The road to firefighting 

After graduation, Edwards headed straight to college in Minnesota, where she had spent summers as a teenager staying with her biological father. “I wanted to be an actress and was interested in writing, so I thought I would get my degree in theater and English,” she recalled. 

After one year, Edwards realized school wasn’t the best fit, so she landed a job at a local daycare. It was there she met with a stroke of luck when the grandmother of one of the students—who also happened to be a recruiter for the Minneapolis Fire Department—asked her to consider firefighting. 

What started out as a couple of informational meetings quickly turned into months of physical, psychological and written tests. “I was 20 years old in rookie school and remember how excited I was to get my first $900 check,” Edwards said.  

Moving through the ranks of junior firefighter, firefighter and driver, Edwards finally reached captain status, recently taking the helm at Station 16 on the North Side. 

In addition to her daily duties as captain and parenting her two boys, Edwards commits to daily yoga sessions and station workouts to maintain her strength and mental wellness. She added, “Those are my two self-care activities I do.”

On TV’s ‘Tough as Nails’ 

When casting calls went out for Season 3 of “Tough as Nails” last summer, Edwards threw her hat in the ring. Known for her strength and mental toughness, she flew through the burpee test (a calisthenics exercise)—100 burpees in just eight minutes—as well as several virtual interviews, including one with co-creator and host of the show Phil Keoghan. 

“I didn’t realize that Phil was Phil, you know, the host of ‘Amazing Race,’” Edwards exclaimed. “The amount of anxiety was terrible, but I made it through.” 

Filming for four straight weeks, Edwards competed in both individual and team events, ranging from building mountain-top snow fences to resealing a massive parking lot. “Being the only firefighter was challenging, since most of the activities were geared towards tradespeople,” she said. “When we would get tired, most of my teammates were able to rely on muscle memory and ultimately perform better.”

[Spoiler Alert] While Edwards didn’t win the overall individual competition, her team placed first in the series, receiving $20,000 in prize money. She added, “My main goal was to stay true to who I am. I just felt grateful for the opportunity.”  

Back to the community

Now that Edwards has returned to the station, her focus is continuing to care for the city she loves. Recognizing the challenges facing Minneapolis, she is concentrating her efforts on keeping the community safe while building opportunities for younger kids. 

“I feel their helplessness, hopelessness, and sometimes anger, but also know the power of someone believing in them,” Edwards said. “I’m here for a purpose, so whatever I need to do, I’m here to keep doing it.”