Sightless potential | Community recreation feature

Raineri spends an hour on his treadmill each day and encourages visitors, and reporters, to do the same - Josh Suman, Bellevue Reporter
Raineri spends an hour on his treadmill each day and encourages visitors, and reporters, to do the same
— image credit: Josh Suman, Bellevue Reporter

The moment Liana Montague began tying her shoes, she knew this fitness class would be unlike any she had ever attended.

Montague showed up at the Mercer Island Parks and Recreation Department for a bootcamp class expecting the usual routine from an overzealous instructor more interested in instilling fear than catering to the needs of those taking the class. What she found instead was Joseph Raineri.

Raineri, a Bellevue resident and lifetime exercise enthusiast, began teaching the class through the Mercer Island Parks and Recreation Department some seven years ago with a handful of dedicated patrons who would quickly learn just how deep his own passion for fitness ran.

"He felt my shoes and made sure they were OK," Montague recalled. "He's pretty passionate about what he does."

As a youth Raineri remembers playing sports with friends and his five younger siblings, maintaining an active lifestyle and always displaying a natural inclination to athletic activities. Then, when he was 13 years old, Raineri got the news that would change his life forever.

"I went in for an eye check when I was 13," Raineri said. "My doctor told me I was probably going to go blind."

The disorder Raineri was diagnosed with was Retinitis Pigmentosa, a genetic condition that gradually reduces the sight of roughly one in ever 4,000 people in the United States. Symptoms begin to manifest during childhood typically but do not develop into blindness until adulthood through a prolonged deterioration of peripheral vision and eventually, central vision.

"For you, it would be like looking through fog, or a pinhole," Raineri said of his current ocular portrait. "There's no details, no distinctions."

Far from devastating, the diagnosis was initially met with a certain level of denial and adolescent invincibility by Raineri, who simply went back to playing basketball with friends and pushed the ominous diagnosis to the back of his mind. But as time went on and the symptoms worsened, there was no more hiding from the truth.

The doctor that initially diagnosed Raineri painted a depressing picture of his future.

"He told me to be aware of two things. One is I should never try to have children," Raineri said. "The other was that I should think about getting a really good job. Like in a broom factory."

While the allure of shaping planks into broomsticks was difficult to ignore, Raineri decided instead to remain steadfast in his dedication to get an education and begin a fulfilling career. After finishing high school, he earned a Bachelor's in Spanish from San Diego State and continued his education at Seattle University where he received a Master's in Counseling.

Since finishing his graduate work, Raineri has worked in his own private practice since 1994.He has three children ages ranging between 24 and 33 years old and is the proud grandfather to seven adoring youngsters.

As his professional career and family life dwarfed any predictions from the medical experts, Raineri also surpassed outside expectations on what an active lifestyle can mean for the blind. After running, walking, biking and swimming throughout his life, he knew there was a therapeutic element to his workouts by the time his sight began to seriously wane around age 25 when he had to give up driving.

He trained continuously regardless of the state of his eyes and ran his first marathon in Calif. in 1976.

"I started running for therapy and ended up running a marathon," Raineri said. "I just didn't know what to do with all the energy, anger and frustration."

The feeling of freedom running provided stuck and to date, Raineri has completed 19 marathons in various stages of sight loss.

He took up downhill and cross country skiing and nearly made the United States Disabled Ski Team after winning 5K and 10K cross country races and traveling the country with the U.S. Association for Blind Athletes. The downhill runs are more complicated and involve a guide but provide still another outlet for Raineri to live a fulfilled life with.

At some point, running, biking and swimming alone were no longer enough and Raineri began competing in triathlons for yet another challenge. The most notable competition he took part in was the Iron Man in Hawaii, which he undertook in a partially blind state in 1982.

"I got really lucky," Raineri said. "I have wonderful friends, great people in my life."

Raineri has retired from competitive skiing and due to his increasingly diminished eyesight, can no longer go for runs or on a swim without a companion. He remains connected (literally) to friends and family, which run or swim with him tethered to a piece of surgical tubing that makes sure he stays out of the road or doesn't drift too far into his favorite Lake Sammamish swimming spot.

When others aren't available to head into the outdoors with him, Raineri completes his workouts indoors with the help of a stationary bike, treadmill and weights.

"I have now learned, being stubbornly independent, to learn to ask for help, Raineri said. "There's some growth there."

He said the fitness class adds another element for him and there's no doubt it does the same for those who participate in the class, which is a mix of young and old individuals of varying athletic capacities.

For Julie Schuman, the best part of the class is working with Raineri. Before joining his bootcamp class, Schuman was in another exercise class that she said lacked the positive reinforcement she was looking for from an instructor.

"It's a very tough workout but it's a very positive workout," Schuman said. "It makes you feel good about the workout."

Montague agreed that hearing a positive message from the voice at the front of the class is a refreshing change of pace and has even come to enjoy the portion of the class where Raineri encourages them to belt out a cleansing scream.

"I always tease him about his spider senses," Montague said. "If we stop working hard for even a second, he always knows somehow."

The size of the class has varied over the years and is hovering around five individuals currently; drumming up interest for a 6 a.m. workout can be tough during the colder, wetter months.

But for those who have come to know and appreciate Raineri as an instructor and friend, the class is a can't-miss.

"He pushes all of us but always in a positive way," Schuman said. "I try to never miss his class. If you knew me, you would know that is an amazing feat."

Joseph Raineri's fitness class is held three times per week at Emanuel Episcopal Church on Mercer Island and on the Mercer Island High School field and track, whether permitting. Contact Raineri at 425-746-6515 for more information or to register.

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