On their second date, Shelly was determined to see if Joe Raftis had any athletic ability, so she booked an outside court at her tennis club, far away from anyone she knew, and they whacked around the ball.
Joe “did okay” on the court that day in the summer of 1995, she says. They were married in 1998.
“I was determined that I wasn’t going to date someone who wasn’t athletic,” Shelly Raftis recalls with a laugh. “In hindsight, that really bit me in the butt.”
While Joe Raftis’s inner athlete may have taken a little time to emerge thanks to the long hours required to establish a successful retail business – Europe Bound Travel Outfitters in downtown Toronto and Oakville – it’s been on full display for nearly a decade now.
Joe was in his late 40s and feeling out of shape and overweight when he decided it was time to start exercising and watching what he ate. Soon, he was running and not long after that, he completed his first marathon, crossing the line of the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront race in 3:11 on his 49th birthday.
Today, he’s a veteran of 12 completed marathons – all run within three years of each other – with a personal best of 2:53 over the grueling 42.2-kilometre distance. He says more may be in his future.
In the meantime, though, Raftis has other mountains to climb – quite literally. On the same day he finished his first marathon, he flew to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest peak.
Since that initial ascent, Raftis has climbed the tallest peaks on four other continents – Alaska’s Mount Denali (North America), Mount Elbrus in Russia (Europe), Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia (Australia/ Oceania) and Mount Vinson (Antarctica). In mid-January, he’s set to travel to Argentina to climb Mount Aconcagua, South America’s highest peak.
A successful summiting of that mountain, which is the world’s tallest outside Asia, would be the sixth in Raftis’s quest to join mountaineering’s super elite by reaching the top of the Seven Summits. The only one outstanding would be Mount Everest, which he’s considering attempting for a third time in 2018.
“I guess you could say I’ve got ants in my pants,” Raftis laughs.
Given the huge financial costs and the inherent risks that come with the quest to conquer the Seven Summits, Raftis admits that more than one person has told him he also has rocks in his head.
In his two previous attempts at Everest, he narrowly cheated death.
In 2015, he was at base camp when a massive earthquake hit Nepal, killing nearly 9,000 people, including 21 in an avalanche on what was the deadliest ever day on Everest. He remembers “a massive wall of snow” coming at him from about 10 feet away, running, and being buried up to his calves.
In 2014, on his first trip to Everest, an avalanche killed 16 guides. The climbing season was cancelled.
A year before that, in another narrow escape, Raftis completed the 2013 Boston Marathon, crossing the finish line about an hour before the bombing, which left three people dead and more than 250 injured.
While Raftis can’t believe his luck to have been surrounded by all that calamity over successive years, he says the key to his approach in mountain climbing is preparation.
“I know the risks of it all,” he says. “You can’t outrun an earthquake or an avalanche, but you can take all the precautions, try to limit your risks as much as you can.”
Though Joe and Shelly’s three children – Kylee, 17, Brandon, 15 and Jordan, 13 – say they have no desire to climb a mountain, they are scaling great heights on their own.
Kylee, a cross-country and track star, signed a letter of intent last month to run in the NCAA for Boston College next year. Brandon, an elite runner himself, plays for the Minor Midget North York Knights AA, while Jordan also skates in the GTHL for the Minor Bantam AA Leaside Flames.
Brandon Raftis says his dad “inspires my hard work” at school and in sports. “I have always encountered my dad working his hardest at everything he does,” he says.
Shelly Raftis, 52, who plays competitive tennis and is a key member of the neighbourhood group that builds and operates an outdoor ice rink in Bennington Heights each winter, is convinced that rubs off.
“I don’t know that they’ll ever climb a mountain,” she says. “But watching him has certainly given them a lesson in what it’s like to set goals and then work to achieve them.”
For his part, Joe Raftis says he certainly didn’t set out in his 50s to climb the Seven Summits, just like he didn’t have a goal of being a sub-three-hour marathoner the day he first laced on running shoes. They were things that just naturally evolved out of a desire to improve his fitness and get the most out of a love of travel.
“I may get another bucket list going one day,” he says. “I’ll have to make my way on to something else.”