Making the swift climb: Kent firefighters show the way in benefit to beat cancer

Kent firefighters Jessi Nemens, 32, above, and Caitlin Corey, 28,  finished third and eighth overall in the women’s field at the Scott Firefighter Stairclimb on March 10, a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  - Courtesy photo
Kent firefighters Jessi Nemens, 32, above, and Caitlin Corey, 28, finished third and eighth overall in the women’s field at the Scott Firefighter Stairclimb on March 10, a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

About two-thirds of the way up Seattle's Columbia Center, Kent firefighter Caitlin Corey started losing momentum.

"There was nothing to think about except what's inside your head and (to) step, step, step," she said.

All the preparation, training and strategy in the world could only take her so far. She needed motivation. She needed a second wind. Looking up ahead of her, she got just that.

"I saw Marty Hauer on the wall," she said.

Hauer, a long-time fitness enthusiast and former Kent firefighter, had died from a rare type of thymus gland cancer in 2008. His picture, along with all the other firefighters from Kent and surrounding stations who were diagnosed or died from cancer, decorated the stairwell.

Although Corey (inset picture) didn't know Hauer personally, she knew what his legacy represented.

"I just kind of gave him a pound and (thought) this is going to be done in seven minutes," Corey said. "People with cancer, it doesn't end."

Seeing those same inspirational photos on her way up, Jessi Nemens pushed past the pain in her legs to scale the 69 flights to the top, staying focused on the true reasons why she decided to climb.

"You're in the zone," she said. "You're working hard to stay focused and keep moving, but you're (also) raising money for a great cause."

Step after step, breath after breath, these two women, wearing an additional 50 pounds of gear, raced to the top to finish third and eighth in the women's category at the 22nd annual Scott Firefighter Stairclimb on March 10.

Nemens raced up 1,311 steps of stairs – an elevation gain of 788 feet to the Columbia Center's observation deck – in 16 minutes, 39 seconds. Corey did the climb in 18:18.

For Nemens, it was her best finish in three attempts. She placed sixth last year out of 120 women with a time of 17:26.

Nemens finished 193rd out of field of 1,473 climbers this year.

Nemens, 32, and Corey, 28, were attracted to the stairclimb for the same reasons they were attracted to the firefighting career. Not only were they both physically demanding, each provided a way for these women to act as civil servants for their community.

Four and a half years into her career, Nemens believes the best part of the job is the team aspect of firefighting. During one 48-hour shift, everyone on duty cooks, eats, works out and trains together, creating a strong bond unlike any other.

"Unless you're in the fire department, it's hard to understand," Nemens said with humility and passion, "but it's really like your second family."

Corey, just a couple years into her career, explained with childlike excitement that the sheer thrill of being dispatched to a fire is one of the best parts for her.

"You're spidey senses swoosh," she said. "And you get all your quills up, and you're like, 'Yes, this is what I've been training my whole life for since I was a fetus.' "

Although attracted to the career for a multitude of different reasons, Nemens and Corey said firefighting is "the best job in the world" because of the love each firefighter feels being a civil servant, a feeling so strong it spreads like wildfire to all within the department.

"That makes good firefighters," Corey said. "I think Kent has something really great in that way."

So when it came time to sign up for this year's firefighter climb, that same passion to serve others and selfless attitude led Nemens, Corey and 12 other Kent firefighters to sign up right away. And within minutes, there wasn't an open spot left on the roster.

Finishing in the top 10 of their field was exciting for both women. But more importantly, it helped raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the focus of the mighty climb.

"It's not about you," Corey said. "As you're going (your) legs are burning a little bit and you feel like you can't catch your breath. (But) how bad is that compared to all these people who are fighting leukemia and lymphoma?"

And with all those people in mind, Corey and Nemens, along with almost 1,500 other firefighters, let their civil servant hearts lead them straight to the top.

"It's a great fundraiser," Nemens said. "The most important part – raising money and making people aware that cancer is affecting so many people."


PHOTO BELOW: Serving with humility: Kent firefighter Caitlin Corey wore her bunkers and a breathing mask, 50 extra pounds, during this year's stairclimb. Michelle Conerly, Kent Reporter

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