Climb­ing 470 steps in a kilt, in mem­ory of his mother

The Buffalo News - - CITY&REGION -

If you need some­one to sling around a chunk of wood that re­sem­bles a tele­phone pole, John Katali­nas is your guy. Af­ter com­pet­ing for years in such track and field events as the shot put and the ham­mer throw, Katali­nas now trav­els to Scot­tish fes­ti­vals around the North­east to sign up for tra­di­tional High­land Games.

He throws the caber, a heavy piece of wood that can weigh more than 100 pounds. He bat­tles at an elite level in con­tests that in­volve toss­ing stones, iron balls and thick pieces of metal. All of this done in tra­di­tional fash­ion, as he notes cheer­fully, which means wear­ing a kilt.

That was about the only thing that stayed the same for him Satur­day. The 280-pound Katali­nas, 51, kilted all the way, en­tered a dif­fer­ent kind of com­pe­ti­tion, one that had as much sym­bolic mean­ing as any con­test he had ever at­tempted.

Katali­nas took part in the ninth an­nual Fight for Air Climb at Buf­falo’s Main Place Tower, co­or­di­nated by the Western New York chap­ter of the Amer­i­can Lung As­so­ci­a­tion. More than 600 peo­ple signed up to climb 24 floors, or 470 stairs. Some did it with pre­pos­ter­ously fast times, such as over­all men’s win­ner Ed Ba­dida, who made it from bot­tom to top in 2 min­utes and 37 sec­onds, or women’s win­ner Erika Fris­bie, who cleared the stairs in 3:51.3.

Sean Kirst

Kirst

It took Katali­nas, an en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist, roughly five times as long as the first guy home, which was fine with him. Speed was hardly the point. As his fi­ancée and col­league, Sheri Finn, put it, “Run­ning is not his thing,” and Katali­nas has noth­ing to prove. By any mea­sure, he re­mains a for­mi­da­ble ath­lete.

Raised in Cheek­towaga, he ex­celled in the shot put and dis­cus in high school at St. Mary’s of Lan­caster. He added the ham­mer throw to his reper­toire at SUNY Fredonia, be­fore mov­ing on to na­tional suc­cess in track and field mas­ters com­pe­ti­tion. From there, seek­ing some­thing new, he em­braced the High­land games.

Katali­nas loves to laugh, of­ten at his own ex­pense. No, he said, he is hardly a run­ner. He did one 5K race years ago just for the sake of do­ing it, and he said he ac­cepted his own lim­i­ta­tions when he was passed down the stretch by an el­derly woman, who was race walk­ing.

The stair climb, all jok­ing aside, wasn’t easy for him. He and Finn did some train­ing in the stair­wells at Ni­a­gara Falls Memo­rial Med­i­cal Cen­ter, but at Main Place, by the 11th or 12th floor, Katali­nas reached a point where he was ba­si­cally will­ing him­self to take each step.

The vol­un­teers at ev­ery land­ing were cer­tainly be­hind him, as ev­i­denced by Eric Dav­ila, who shouted en­cour­age­ment and danced in joy as he called out “There you go! There you go!” at the 17th floor. Katali­nas gave a grate­ful nod but felt thor­oughly ex­hausted. He stopped to catch his breath, hold­ing the wall for sup­port.

That kind of pain was the point. This was for his mother.

Katali­nas, a lead­er­ship board mem­ber for the lung as­so­ci­a­tion, helped raise more than $2,000 for his team in mem­ory of Dorothy Katali­nas, who died from lung can­cer in Novem­ber. Her son, even be­fore his mother’s death, knew he would do the climb in her mem­ory. He hated the idea of lung can­cer claim­ing a woman he re­mem­bers as unas­sum­ing, as fun­da­men­tally self­less.

His mom was al­ways at home wait­ing for him when he was a kid. Her hus­band, John P. Katali­nas, died of com­pli­ca­tions from a heart at­tack while their son was still in col­lege. For her fam­ily’s sake, Dorothy went back to work. She started by dis­in­fect­ing sur­gi­cal in­stru­ments at St. Joseph’s Hos­pi­tal, be­fore she ended up as an as­sis­tant to an anes­the­si­ol­o­gist.

“She was very meek, very quiet,” Katali­nas said. “If she knew I was do­ing this, she would have seen it as un­nec­es­sary. She would have said, ‘For me? No. Don’t bother.’ ”

Katali­nas said she al­ways shrugged off her own larger im­por­tance. His mother was the kind of Buf­falo­nian who worked hard her en­tire life and built each day around the needs of oth­ers, then died with a brief obituary, leav­ing only those within the most in­ti­mate cir­cle to un­der­stand the mag­ni­tude of that one life.

The climb was a chance for a larger state­ment. For that rea­son, the big and bearded bald guy with a kilt – joined by Finn and col­leagues Mag­gie Popek and Jen Wasielewski from the GHD en­vi­ron­men­tal re­sources com­pany – be­came part of the crowd milling around Satur­day at Main Place, wait­ing to hit the stairs.

Many com­peti­tors had sim­i­lar mo­ti­va­tions. More than 100 fire­fight­ers from through­out Western New York signed up for the event. Within their ranks, stair climbs in full gear in city tow­ers are in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar, in no small part as a way of hon­or­ing the 343 fire­fight­ers who died on the job Sept. 11, 2001, among al­most 2,800 peo­ple killed when ter­ror­ists flew two jet­lin­ers into the World Trade Cen­ter.

Kae­lyn Gates and Kelli Han­son, co­or­di­na­tors of the climb for the lung as­so­ci­a­tion, said the event serves as both a trib­ute to fire per­son­nel and as a po­ten­tially life­sav­ing re­minder. Due to what fire­fight­ers ex­pe­ri­ence and some­times breathe in at ev­ery fire – all the things that can burn into smoke and fumes within old build­ings – they face an un­usu­ally high in­ci­dence of res­pi­ra­tory dis­ease.

Kristy Gin­ter of the West Falls Vol­un­teer Fire Co., and Meagan Guido of the Main-Tran­sit Fire De­part­ment in Amherst, friends from a fire­fight­ing boot camp, did the climb to­gether. Gin­ter said she was think­ing of her step­fa­ther, Joe Han­ra­han, an ex-Marine who was a ma­jor part of her life, “a fan­tas­tic guy” who died in his 50s from lung can­cer.” If he was alive,” she said, “he would have been here for me.”

As for Katali­nas, asked for a fa­vorite child­hood mem­ory of his mother, he im­me­di­ately re­called how much she loved to read. She would some­times al­low him to call in sick from school be­fore driv­ing her son to Sun­set Bay, where she would set­tle in a lawn chair with a fa­vorite book, while Katali­nas spent the day in the wa­ter or play­ing in the sand.

On those quiet af­ter­noons, beach al­most de­serted, it was only them. Katali­nas thought of that, and of the lung can­cer that claimed her life, and he thought: Dorothy did not de­serve that kind of strug­gle, and the climb was a chance to dream out loud about a cure.

“What bet­ter way to spend a Satur­day morn­ing,” he said, “than to spend it here, hon­or­ing my mother, with 600 of my best neigh­bors?”

Even on the stairs, he never lost his sense of hu­mor. At ev­ery land­ing, he heard the fa­mil­iar greet­ing that is a part of life for any be­mused vet­eran of the High­land Games, the way peo­ple kept shout­ing about how much they loved his kilt.

“I should have filled it with he­lium,” he told them, on his way to the top.

Pho­tos by Derek Gee/Buf­falo News

John Katali­nas makes his way up the stairs of Main Place Tower dur­ing the Fight For Air Climb on Satur­day. Katali­nas ded­i­cated his climb to the mem­ory of his mother, Dorothy, who died of lung can­cer in Novem­ber.

Derek Gee/Buf­falo News

John Katali­nas kisses his fi­ancée, Sheri Finn, af­ter they com­pleted the Fight For Air Climb to ben­e­fit the Amer­i­can Lung As­so­ci­a­tion at Main Place Tower on Satur­day.

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