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Scaling New Heights

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It is 1 a.m., and Sue Burakowski can’t sleep. Tossing and turning in her three-bedroom home in Long Beach, Calif., the 35-year-old single mother is too pumped about the task soon at hand. So with her two foster children—Corey, 3, and 6-month-old David—entrusted to the care of a friend, housemate Kris Kierstead, she puts on a helmet and army fatigues and heads into the night. By 3:30 a.m. she and a partner are standing behind a SWAT team in the darkness outside a home in the crime-ridden Watts section of L.A. Inside is a felon with a chilling rap sheet: firebombing, assault, attempted murder. If he is sleeping, serving an arrest warrant on him may well be easy. If he is not, someone might just as easily be shot and wounded or killed. If things go wrong, the former SWAT member turned high-risk paramedic is ready—and then some.

“I love it when they pull off the front door with a big hook. It’s ‘Bam!’ and then the door flies off,” she says. “You’re inside in 30 seconds. It’s total adrenaline.”

Spiked, in Burakowski’s case, with a shot of estrogen. A 13-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, she’s the first female member of the elite Sheriff’s Emergency Services Detail—a sort of SWAT team with medical bags. The challenges of the job are many—jumping out of helicopters, scaling mountains, scuba diving in icy waters—but none has been as tough as simply getting to join the unit 16 months ago. “She represents one-tenth of 1 percent of the 10,000 sworn members of the department,” says Capt. Sid Hill, who over-sees the Special Enforcement Bureau. “The average person would never try for this detail.”

Like her counterparts, Burakowski trained for a year to be certified as an expert mountaineer, paramedic and diver after being accepted to ESD. At 5’8″ and 140 lbs., she cuts a slight figure among the 13 burly men on her squad—and maintains a motto that has served her well: “Work hard and never complain.” Says ESD member Sgt. Tom Thompson: “She has earned a lot of respect from the men. She does what is expected.”

Meaning, for instance, that after completing the Watts arrest (the suspect did not resist), she showed up at ESD headquarters at 6 a.m. and spent two hours running, lifting weights and swimming. Around 10 a.m. training moved 20 miles away to Mount Wilson, where she and half her unit spent five hours hiking and rappelling down sheer cliffs with 30 lbs. of gear to prepare for rescue missions. During training, admits Burakowski, “I don’t say a lot; I learn.” Still, she embraces the routines—and the scrutiny of both men and women eager to see how the unit’s lone female will fare. “It pushes me harder to be at the top of my game,” she says.

Not that she needs much pushing. As a girl growing up in Warren, Mich., with two older brothers—Jeff, 39, a bookseller in Chicago, and Mike, 40, a funeral director in Warren—Burakowski was “this skinny little blonde who would sit back and watch the boys shimmy halfway up a pole at the beach, unable to get any further,” says her mother, Gloria, 60, a homemaker. “Then she would shimmy up without any effort.” Later, as a student at Sterling Heights High School, the all-state volleyball, softball and basketball player was “the most competitive person I’ve ever coached,” says her basketball coach Tom Dailey. “She won because she wanted to win.”

Athletics wasn’t her only interest. From the time she was a kid glued to Charlie’s Angels on TV, says Burakowski, she knew she wanted to be in law enforcement. In 1989 she graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a degree in criminal justice—and later that year graduated from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Academy. In the decade that followed she worked as a deputy in a women’s prison, a street cop, and—much to the dismay of her mother, who urged her to be a nurse or a teacher—a SWAT member. “Were we scared?” says her father, Henry, 61, a principal at a Catholic grammar school near Warren. “Absolutely.” But fear never entered his daughter’s heart. Just the desire, says her brother Mike, “to be with the best.”

Reaching that goal has come at a cost: personal time, for starters. Inspired by her parents, who took in some 200 foster kids over the years (and adopted three of them: Jonah, 27, a student activities director at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., as well as Jimmy, who died from heart failure at age 14 in 1998; and Matthew, who was hit by a car and killed last year at age 23), Burakowski has fostered and plans to adopt both Corey and David. Between her job and her kids, who are cared for by a network of friends when she is on the job, she is lucky to sneak in a few minutes to read a book now and then. But as usual she has no complaints—just dreams to do some inspiring of her own. As she says, “I want to have some little girl meet me at a job fair and say, ‘I want to do this someday.'”

Karen S. Schneider

Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles