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Sisters lead team in Buffalo’s Fight for Air Climb

Katie Gemmer and her sister, Shannon Bauer, grew up in awe of their dad, Wally Thompson, a former Niagara University basketball player who was a coach, college basketball referee and physical education teacher at Bennett High School while the sisters were growing up. “I considered my father like the mayor of Buffalo in a way,” said Gemmer, 36, of the Town of Tonawanda. “We couldn’t go anywhere without him seeing tons of people that he knew.”

Thompson was known for his grit, passion for sports, and the Tiparillo cigars he smoked. He died nine years ago, at age 62, after a two-year battle with lung cancer. His daughters since have become co-captains of Wally’s Warriors, the top fundraising team three years running in the American Lung Association Fight for Air Climb in Buffalo. This year’s event starts at 8:30 a.m. March 12 and challenges participants to climb the 38 stories – 800 steps in all – of One Seneca Tower. Sign up at bit.ly/1UkS3SJ.

Q. What would you compare this to?

I thought doing half-marathons or CrossFit or these boot camp classes that I take would give me some perspective but there is not one thing I do that I can compare this to. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever participated in. ... About 10 flights in, I want to quit. I run and I take two steps at a time. I’m going as fast as I can and after that I’m really gassed. When you get to the top, it’s a wake-up call. Even people that stop at every water station can still finish in 15 to 20 minutes. You’re completely winded. It really drives the point home into how people feel with emphysema, lung disease, cancer, asthma, whatever people suffer from on a daily basis. But it’s only difficult when you’re doing it. When you get to the top, it’s a gorgeous view of Buffalo. You can hydrate and get snacks and replenish, and then you can take the elevator down.

Q. Talk about your team.

Last year, the age ranges were from 10 years old to over 70 years old. It doesn’t matter your age or ability. Anyone can do it; you have to go at your own pace. Everybody on the team either knew my dad and loved my dad or are supporting my sister and I. Some people on the team, their kids have asthma. One of my friends lost her uncle to lung cancer. We lost our dad. My aunt, my dad’s twin sister, lost her husband to throat cancer. It touches everybody’s lives. Everybody knows somebody who’s had a lung ailment or struggled to breathe in some manner.

– Scott Scanlon