For blind cross-country skier, ‘the feel is everything’

Walter Raineri, a visually impaired adaptive skier, skis at Soldier Hollow on Jan. 6. (Photo by Scott Sommerdorf/The Salt Lake Tribune)

By Aaron Falk
The Salt Lake Tribune

SOLDIER HOLLOW — The 10-kilometer track follows a winding path on the side of picturesque snow-capped mountains, with trees covered in crystals of ice.

Walt Raineri sees none of it, but listens as it’s all described to him.

It is the only way he will finish this grueling race.

“Imagine closing your eyes, and then somebody says, ‘Open,’ and you’ve got a fraction of a second to decide what’s next,” Raineri said. “Are you going right? Left? Up? Down? Just every second my mind’s going a thousand miles an hour. What’s the steepness of the hill? You could just look at it. I have to feel it.”

“The feel is everything,” he said.

For the San Francisco man who lost nearly all of his sight to a hereditary disease, there are few feelings better than the rush of air on his face as he skis.

Raineri, a former CPA, has retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease that attacks the retina. It is carried on the X chromosome. All three of his brothers are also blind.

In 2005, over a span of five months, Raineri lost 95 percent of his vision.

“Everything started caving in,” he said.

The central vision went first, leaving him with only the chance to catch ghostly shadows on the edges of his sight. He remembers trying to make it work, and then tripping on a rock in a busy intersection and falling to the ground.

“I had to decide then to stop trying to be a poorly functioning sighted person and start being a highly functioning blind person,” he said.

He’s found his release outdoors, kayaking, tandem cycling and nordic skiing.

As he left with the pack of a hundred or so skiers on Jan. 6 during the U.S. Cross Country Championships, the guide who has helped him race since Raineri started skiing two years ago was at his side.

“I have to think of what he’s thinking,” Dave Baker said. “I have to be one step ahead of him. I tell him that there’s track. I describe the hill and the turns. It’s a challenge but I enjoy it.”

“I have to keep up with him,” Baker added. “That’s the hardest part.”

Raineri has struggled at times. In the 1.3-kilometer sprint, he got one ski in a track but couldn’t find a hold for his other and fell. But Baker is there to make sure he gets up and finishes.

“The best part is when he says, ‘Go to the finish, just rip it up,’” Rainer said. “So I’m ripping it up and I have no idea if I’ve crossed yet. And then somebody said good job and I figured that meant I had finished.”

But Raineri won’t stop at that finish line.

“For me, it’s about keeping the walls from caving in,” he said. “Because, out here, there are no walls.”

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