I wouldn't let them shoot me, not at first.
Having been slapped with enough speeding tickets to wallpaper the outfield fence at SkyDome, I get heart palpitations at the mere sight of a police vehicle. And there were dozens of them in the parking lot of the Emergency Task Force station the day I showed up to do a shift with one of Toronto's six SWAT teams.
By the time Sergeant Tim Crone came out to greet me -- attired in blue jumpsuit and black combat boots, with a semi-automatic pistol tucked inside his leg holster -- I was in a cold sweat. He introduced me to the seven of nine men on the team who were on duty that day (one was on a training course, another had a day off). All were big and buff, not surprising considering each spends an hour a shift in the gym.
The Special Weapons and Tactics force, established in 1965, answered more than 500 calls last year, everything from hostage-takings to armed suicide attempts. Crone's team recently answered 10 calls over a six-day period, including one involving an emotionally disturbed man who took a swing at Crone with a nail-studded baseball bat. Crone shot him with a Taser.
Which was at least partly why Crone suggested it might be interesting for me to experience being shot with a stun gun -- Tasers being one of the most useful weapons the SWAT team has. Another team member, Tom Urbaniak, offered to be shot with me. I declined, and when I saw the look on his face, it dawned on me that he had known I would, that he figured I was a wimp with a pen and notepad. That's when I knew I had to prove him wrong.
We made our way to the gym, where the other team members interrupted their workouts and gathered around the mat where the SWAT member and the Post journalist kneeled and linked arms. Had I been a violent offender, Crone would have pulled the trigger, and wires with hooks would have shot out and fastened to my clothes.
But I was nothing if not docile. He fastened two clips to my clothing, one to the gallant Urbaniak. Then he stepped back and raised the stun gun -- at which point I came to my senses, changed my mind and ...
... Crone pulled the trigger, an electrical charge travelled through the wires and right through my central nervous system. I was on the mat in an instant, helpless as a baby seal on an ice cap. It reminded me of how, when I was a toddler, I had pressed my lips against an electrical socket -- but this jolt was much more intense. Beside me, Urbaniak looked similarly out of sorts.
A few moments later, the fog lifted, and I noted that my fellow SWAT team members were smiling at me. I had joined an elite club of law-abiding citizens who had been Tasered.
Soon after, we hit the road in several marked vehicles. I joined Crone in a "gun truck," a Suburban nicknamed the "war wagon" because it's loaded with weapons, ballistic shields and breaching equipment with such endearing names as the Two-Man Ram and the Hooligan Bar.
We assembled at a former priests' residence, now boarded up, near Victoria Park and Lawrence, where the teams conduct "entry" drills. On this day, a five-man entry team was practicing "stealth entry" -- each wearing a helmet, a ballistic vest, a load-bearing vest (equipped with a Taser and "distraction devices" such as a stun grenade) and a gun harness (each of which held either a submachine gun, a shotgun or an assault rifle).
I was told to remain outside.
"No problem," I replied. "I'll secure the perimeter."
Crone raised an eyebrow.
Once the drill began, I went in the building and watched the men go through their paces, weapons pointed in different directions. George Fotopoulos, another SWAT team member, stopped the drill periodically to critique them. It was over in 20 minutes: They had apprehended a violent crack addict -- actually, a rookie team member.
When the men emerged, sweaty and tired, they were accosted by a dozen children, circling the team on bicycles and skateboards.
"Did you shoot someone?" a girl asked hopefully. "Is anyone dead?" another demanded.
One brave boy leaned forward and touched a helmet on the floor of a van: "Sweet!"
Tim Daley, one of the team members, explained that encounters with children weren't unusual, "especially now, with the S.W.A.T. movie being so hot."
The team got into their vehicles and drove off, preparing to patrol the streets for the rest of the shift, as they do on every shift when they're not responding to emergency calls.
The Toronto police these days regard traffic as a high priority, which means the team spends more time enforcing traffic laws and less time training between calls. "If we don't spend more time training, something is going to go wrong," Urbaniak told me. "Someone is going to get hurt."
Crone and I headed off to a falafel restaurant. On our way, we came across a van parked in front of an Indian restaurant, just a metre away from a No Standing sign. The law-flouting civilian emerged from the restaurant to discover a policeman dressed for urban warfare issuing a parking ticket. After a short conversation, Crone returned to the war wagon, having let the malefactor go with a warning. He hadn't even pulled the Glock 9mm out of his leg holster as a gentle reminder not to park illegally.
At the restaurant, Crone ordered three falafels, two for him and one for me. I demanded a second one -- with hot sauce. I was becoming more macho by the minute.
Later, we patrolled the Yonge-St. Clair area, then headed back to the station, monitoring the police radio for calls. It had been a quiet shift. As we pulled into the station parking lot, I heard Crone on the radio talking to the other team members, who were meeting after work. Ah, some much-deserved leisure time. I envisioned kicking back with the boys.
But it was not to be. Crone politely waited for me to get out of the war wagon and urged me to call if I had follow-up questions. Then he drove off and left me on my own, to mingle with the civilians.
You are irresistible, Anna. Hotter than Georgia asphalt.
Even those of us who cringe at the mention of your name -- and are routinely dismissed as envious -- admit that your toned, tanned limbs and long blond ponytail render men helpless.
But envy aside, you should not let the fuss go to your head. It is nothing new as I discovered researching my new book on women in sports.
There has been an erotic undercurrent in women's sports for as long as women have been sweating and breathing heavily.
Thousands of years before you appeared on the cover of a magazine dressed in white mini shorts and a clingy tube top, men were swooning over females from Sparta, a militaristic city state that required women to be as physically fit as men.
While Athenian women were tending to their homes, Spartan women were competing in athletic contests to demonstrate their fitness to bear future warriors. Their well-toned arms and legs attracted a lot of attention. So much so, an indignant Athenian dramatist condemned their "great display of naked limbs."
Euripides' protests were brushed aside. Athletic females were still titillating men in the Middle Ages, when impoverished Englishwomen ran races, competing for smocks or pieces of cloth.
Participants were encouraged to wear minimal clothing for the sake of male spectators, who grabbed or tripped them as they ran past.
These women had it rough, but not compared to prostitutes throughout Europe who were all but mauled by male spectators while competing in races for cash prizes.
Anna, you are not entitled to complain about the trials and tribulations of being an athletic nymphet. You have nothing on the poor and sexually disreputable Englishwomen who stripped to the waist and pounded each other senseless for the amusement of male spectators in the 1700s. At least you don't have to compete naked. (Imagine the sunburn!)
Sure, you have a small army of publicists and bodyguards to keep lustful men at bay. But you are not the first female athlete to need protection from the elements. Men were forbidden to watch the first women's intercollegiate basketball game between the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford in 1896, lest they became aroused and lunged at the competitors. (The players were dressed provocatively, in bloomers and thick black stockings.)
For the same reason, men were prevented from watching women's swimming races in Germany. Organizers softened up a few years later and allowed the lascivious beasts to attend -- as long as they sat at least 30 yards from the contestants. The standard women's swimsuit had enough material to supply a small textile mill, but was deemed unbearably provocative. American swimmer Ethelda Bleibtrey was reminded of that when she was thrown in the clink for exposing her legs at a beach in 1919. (She recovered from the trauma and won gold at the Olympics the following year.)
Anna, don't complain about your mother keeping tabs on your extracurricular activities. The virtue of female athletes has always been in jeopardy.
When women took up cycling in the late 1800s, arbiters of decency sounded alarm bells. The bicycle seat was thought to stimulate a woman's genitals, putting her at risk of becoming sexually promiscuous. Manufacturers rode to the rescue and introduced a wide-saddled, high-handlebarred bike.
The new model prevented women from racing as the design was far from aerodynamic, but it allowed female cyclists to remain virtuous. Did women miss their old bikes?
Anna, if only you knew.