ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — Five years ago, Jennifer Owens couldn't manage to do a single pull-up. It kept her from passing a fitness performance test all police officers must complete as part of the police academy.
But now she breezes through more than a dozen pull-ups. Recently she ripped off 18 of them. The 27-year-old Roanoke police detective can also do 70 sit-ups and can bench press 140 pounds, more than her body weight.
Owens' physical abilities have helped out her out at work, where she occasionally has to chase down criminals and restrain men whose size can dwarf her small frame, but being fit has also given her some national attention.
Last month, Owens was named the female champion in the National LawFit Challenge in Olive Branch, Miss., an annual event where hundreds of police officers — men and women — compete in fitness tests and obstacles to determine who has the most physically fit law enforcement officers in the country.
Owens has come to master the test she couldn't pass five years ago: Her championship this year is her fourth in a row, making her the top female officer in the country to beat when it comes to LawFit.
And she doesn't just beat women. Owens came in 16th overall in the competition, beating out 102 other officers, the majority of whom were men.
"I was almost more happy to hear that," Owens said. She said about 16 other women competed in the challenge.
Owens stands 5 feet, 4 1/2 inches tall — she always emphasizes that extra half. Still, as a Roanoke police officer she knew she'd picked a gig that sometime would call for her to wrestle people to the ground, and she didn't want to come up short. She knew she had to be in better physical shape than the average person.
"There's been times when I've gotten into a few scuffles with a buddy, and I'm glad to be in shape, especially for being a female and having to be in a fight with two guys," Owens said. "It's good to help your buddy out and not just be kind of yelling on the radio."
Owens was always athletic and even played on her college rugby team. However, she really homed in on health and nutrition after going through the police academy.
Originally from Manassas, Owens went to Radford University and studied criminal justice. She applied for a spot with the Roanoke Police Department after graduation. One of the stipulations to finishing the police academy is passing the LawFit challenge, which leads trainees through intense physical fitness tests of weightlifting, running and obstacles. After failing to do any pull-ups, which are her self-proclaimed Kryptonite, she worked on getting in shape and developed a routine that stuck.
After a few months of training she could do six pull-ups, always pushing to do a little better than she did the day before.
"They preach to us that physical fitness is so important when it comes to police work," Owens said. "I mean, you find yourself in fights. You are going to need to pull people to help."
Sometimes, she said, you have to chase people down or climb through a window or drag 150 pounds, just like the LawFit obstacle course has officers do.
"Every foot pursuit I have gotten in, it always seems to be uphill. It can never be downhill," Owens said.
She recalls one incident when she had to restrain a man who was easily more than 6 feet tall and 200 pounds. The officer who was her backup was about her height, but it didn't matter — they still had to put handcuffs on the suspect.
Times that like, Owens said, are when it comes in handy that she can bench press 105 percent of her body weight.
After a few years she eventually got a reputation in the police department for her no-holds-barred workouts.
Deputy Chief Curtis Davis, who works on officers' instructional services, said her work ethic and attitude toward getting in shape are among the reasons she was picked to lead classes for other officers on issues such as foot pursuits and felony stops.
"There is always a perception that size represents physical fitness or toughness, but that's just not the case," Davis said. He said he knows several other officers — men and women — who ask Owens for advice on getting in shape, and she has become a symbol of the physicality that they want Roanoke police to represent.
Physical fitness is high on the scale of requirements for Roanoke officers. Davis said they encourage officers to perform in the National LawFit Challenge because it inspires other officers.
Owens wasn't the only local performer at LawFit. Five other Roanoke officers joined her and placed in several different competitions.
Detective Glen Ford came in second place overall in the men's division.
Owens works out with Ford and his brother Loren Ford, who also competed in the LawFit challenge, and said she is fortunate to have her fellow officers with her in the gym for encouragement, often going toe-to-toe with them during workouts.
"I've been so lucky that I have been able to work with such amazing guys here," Owens said. "I've never had an issue of, 'Oh she's a woman, she can't do it.' It's more like, 'Oh, it's Jen Owens, she can do it.' "
When she isn't working out at the police department gym, she's on Salem Avenue at Brickhouse CrossFit.
"It's so fast and dynamic and explosive. It's a perfect workout for law enforcement," Owens said. She does CrossFit for fun, she said, even when she isn't training for LawFit.
But even Owens has to take some breaks. After she took home her fourth national LawFit championship in a row on June 15, she broke character and had a huge piece of cake. Her favorite cheat meal? Chocolate.
"I highly recommend the dark chocolate-covered almonds at the co-op," Owens said.
Tiffany Holland writes for The Roanoke Times.