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A Radiant Beacon: Class of 2004 graduates overcome obstacles and challenge themselves to make the grade

The 121st spring commencement at The University of Texas at Austin will be celebrated May 22 by more than 7,000 graduating students, their families and friends, and members of the university community. The graduates in the following profiles have set high standards for others, both in the classroom and out.

World-class triathlete goes the distance in training and in the classroom

Shae Rainer
Shae Rainer, who couldn’t swim five years ago, hopes to qualify for the Olympics as a triathlete.

Shae Rainer never got the hang of playing with Barbies when she was a little girl, preferring to keep up with the boys instead.

Now that she’s 23, she finds the boys are having trouble keeping up with her.

Rainer, a senior in the College of Education’s Department of Kinesiology, has lived something of a Cinderella story while working on her degree in kinesiology, advancing—in only five years—from a girl who did not own a mountain bike or know how to swim to a world-class triathlete who has her eye on the Olympics.

Her photo now graces magazine covers, she wins duathlons alongside Lance Armstrong, has her picture taken as she chats with Gov. Rick Perry at races and hears her name announced by ABC sportscasters.

“My family isn’t particularly athletic, and no one was pushing me to participate in races,” said Rainer. “I just find that I absolutely thrive on competition, and I have to have a challenge. I hate not being physically active.

“Until 1999, I knew enough about swimming to maybe save myself if I was drowning, but that was it. In 2000 when I competed in my first ever triathlon, though, I finished in fourth place in my age group and then finished in first place in my age group in the Trilogy Triathlon that same year. My dream is to participate in the Olympics, and I just feel like it’s going to happen. I know I can do it.”

While taking up to 18 hours a semester of business and kinesiology courses, Rainer has trained for and participated in 40 races all over the nation and won first place or been in the top three in every race. In an almost manic display of energy and drive, Rainer on one weekend may participate in and win a triathlon on a Saturday, then travel to a different locale on Sunday, participate in a mountain bike race and win that competition as well.

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Mother triumphs over blindness to live life of vision and advocacy

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way—developing macular degeneration at age 7. But Niki Robinson has done more than just deal with it.

Niki Robinson with her son Jake, her daughter Jessie and her service dog Joey
Niki Robinson enjoys the support of her family: Jake, her 5-year-old son; Joey, her 3-year-old service dog; and Jessie, her 7-year-old daughter.

Legally blind since she was a child, 34-year-old Robinson (formerly Mercer) decided to return to school and become a social worker so she could, in turn, help children with disabilities. She will graduate in May.

“I have been presented with a lifetime of hurdles, but these challenges have made me the person I am today,” said Robinson, a single mother of two small children.

Macular degeneration is an incurable eye disease and a leading cause of blindness for those aged 55 and older in the United States. Robinson realizes she is an anomaly.

“Ever since I made the decision to accept my disability, I have had a positive attitude and do the best I can,” she said. “I believe my unwillingness to give up forces people to look at their own circumstances from a new perspective.”

Robinson’s life is a juggling act, although sometimes she feels she is juggling bowling balls. Four “J’s” are foremost in her mind: Jessie, her 7-year-old daughter, Jake, her 5-year-old son, Joey, her 3-year-old service dog and Jaws, the screen reader on her computer that speaks to her.

“Jessie and Jake are my fuel to keep me pursuing my dreams,” she said.

Joey will walk across the stage with Robinson when she receives her degree.

Robinson paid only $1 for “the most incredible dog in the world,” trained by Guide Dogs of Texas in San Antonio. She recently spoke to a conference of 400 Texas nursing students about the guide dog school, and Joey received a standing ovation.

Read more about Niki Robinson...

Photos: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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