Thursday, February 22, 2024

Run Henry, Run: A Story of Courage, Determination and Human Strength

One day in 1995, a Kenyan athlete by the name of Henry Wanyoike roused from his slumber to complete darkness. Stumbling out of bed to the sound of his mother’s voice, he thought that there was a power outage at first, but as he moved around, dawned on the realisation that he could not see. Assessed by a doctor at the local hospital to be blind, Henry – who until then had been a physically fit and able – felt that his dreams were dashed. Little did he know that five years later, he would be winning a gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, inspiring thousands of people over the next decade with his story. PASSIONS speaks to this inspiring soul who shows us what it means to have the courage and will to face the challenges of life in spite of all odds.

Born to Run

As a child, Henry Wanyoike had always looked up to the sportsmen of Kenya, held in awe the position and popularity that they received. Although he was given his first taste of the track at the age of nine when he was chosen to fill a place for a schoolmate at a race, it wasn’t until he was thirteen that Wanyoike began to compete seriously, going on to represent his district in 5,000 and 10,000 metre dashes.

An unfortunate twist of fate in March 1995, however, changed Wanyoike’s life forever, when he was suddenly hit with a stroke. Initially, the ordeal left him paralysed on his entire left side of the body, and when it went away two weeks later, the runner thought that the worse was behind him. Then, the blindness came, and Wanyoike woke up one morning without his sight – his hopes, dreams and plans seemingly destroyed.

“I felt the world had turned upside-down,” he said. “It felt as if that was the end of my life.” As the only son and male in the family, Wanyoike felt that of his condition only served to add greater difficulty to his mother and sister. “I thought that I would never again be able to do anything for myself or my family.”

Kibunja (left) and Wanyoike (right) running the 10,000 metres men’s final at the 2004 Athens Paralympics. Childhood friends, Kibunja and Wanyoike have known each other for almost 30 years. Image courtesy of European Pressphoto Agency (EPA).

Finding new sight

Although he visited several hospitals from Thogoto Hospital (now Kikuyu Mission Hospital) to Kenyatta National Hospital in search of a cure, Wanyoike was faced with bitter disappointment at each consultation, as doctors diagnosed his condition irreversible. Suicidal thoughts filled his mind, as the one-time athlete began to sink into a deep depression.

“I felt hopeless and useless,” he recounted later in a biography, “I felt that I was of no use in this world and would spend the rest of my life, a helpless wreck, reduced to relying on others to do everything for me.”

This was before he discovered the Low Vision Project at Thogoto Hospital, recognised as one of the best centres for the visually impaired in East Africa, through a relative working there. Headed by Petra Verweyen, the Low Vision Unit trained Wanyoike to adapt to his condition and to lead a normal life. “It was not easy in the beginning,” recalled the athlete. “But I realised that there were so many things I was still able to do despite my disability. I learned to do things on my own, while Verweyen was always encouraging me to not give up on myself or my family.”

Henry Wanyoike celebrating his gold medal win for the 5,000 metre men’s final at the 9th All-African Games. Image courtesy of European Pressphoto Agency (EPA).

Running again

It 1999, he joined Machakos Technical Institute for the Blind – which provides training of vocational and practical skills. Initially, planning to learn knitting, Wanyoike chanced upon the possibility of running again. Speaking to the games teacher, he was inspired by the story of Helen Cherono, a blind athlete, and realised that he could run with the help of a guide. Enlisting the help of an able-bodied student, Ezekiel, to run beside him, it was the beginning of Wanyoike’s return to the track.

“No one could believe I could do sports at first, and it took them awhile to accept and agree that I was able to run,” he said. “Besides that, it was also not easy to run with a guide at first. I fell many times before I got used to it,” Wanyoike laughed. “The roads in Kenya can also be very bumpy for running. The greatest challenge however was the fact that I didn’t see myself being given many opportunities to run. To get that kind of support is not easy, but by then I had already accepted my blindness and was determined to push myself to reach my dreams.”

Winning two annual Olympic Day Runs in Machakos twice in a row, Wanyoike then participated in the 2000 Paralympic Games trials. Although Ezekiel declined to participate in the race, a second guide, Kyalo, came on board, and together whizzed past their competitors at the trials and at the Sydney Paralympics to victory, winning the gold medal for the 5,000 metre dash – a great victory for Kenya.

A friend indeed

After Sydney, the two went on to run for another race in Egypt two years later, emerging with two gold medals, as well as a silver medal. However, Wanyoike’s partnership with Kyalo did not last due to the great distance they had to meet for training, and Wanyoike had to work with several other guides for the next few races before he finally decided on an old childhood friend, Joseph Kibunja, whom he has known for over 30 years.

A carpenter by trade, Kibunja trained alongside six other athletes with hopes of qualifying as Wanyoike’s guide, and was finally selected after the rest failed to meet Wanyoike’s needs. “I didn’t know how to do it at first because I was not a runner, but I can see that my friend really wanted me to help him achieve his goals and dreams,” he said. “It required a lot of sacrifice and determination, but I believe that if I was the one he wanted to help him, then I’ll do it.”

Since then, the two have been running together ever since, breaking records as well as earning medals. Best friends on and off the track, the two constantly train and motivate each other. “It’s all about teamwork,” said Wanyoike. “We share ideas and have the same vision, but what’s most important is that we really trust each other.”

Kibunja (third from left) and Wanyoike (centre) posing with the gold medal which they won for the 10,000 metre men’s final at the 2004 Athens Paralympics. Image courtesy of European Pressphoto Agency (EPA).

Banking on inspiration

Eventually, their successes caught the attention of Mike Denoma, Standard Chartered’s Group Executive Officer who invited them to run in the Singapore Marathon in 2004. Following their popularity, they became the bank’s goodwill ambassadors for its ‘Seeing is Believing’ campaign, and were invited to run several charity marathons around the world, from Hong Kong to Mumbai, Nairobi to Kuala Lumpur. Calling their partnership with Standard Chartered “a good friendship”, Wanyoike tells us that this programme not only gathers people together for a good cause, but also gives the public a chance to help the visually impaired and raise awareness about blindness.

Top: Henry Wanyoike (middle) and Joseph Kibunja (right) with a student from the special education institute Sekolah Menengah Pendidikan Khas Cacat Penglihatan Setapak. The duo was in the city to give a series of talks and motivational speeches to the visually impaired.
Above: Wanyoike (seated, left) and Kibunja (seated, centre) with several members of the Malaysian Paralympics athletes.

“We do not just run,” Wanyoike said. “During this time, we also go to schools to give motivational talks and speeches, so that we will be able to share my story with others. The more people join and support this programme, the more we are able to help those who are visually impaired or blind – by helping them get proper medical treatment to get their sight back, as well as give them hope and opportunities. We hope that by the time we leave, we would have been able to inspire someone, somewhere.”

The future is bright

Although he is proud to have broken several world records and still hold three of them, Wanyoike is happiest for having overcome the obstacles in his life and having been able to do so for the past sixteen years. More than that, he is also proud of the fact that he is an inspiration for the visually challenged everywhere and is able to do his part for society. “When we are helping someone, even if it is one person, we will always feel inspired,” he said, smiling. “I feel very motivated that I am able to give back to the community.”

 This can be seen in his victory at Sydney in 2000, when he met with Arnold Schwarzenegger and was given several knitting machines which he donated to the needy. “He asked me what he could do to help me, and I said that he could help me buy some knitting machines because they are not easily available in Kenya,” recalled the athlete. Taking the machines back to Kenya, he donated them to Machakos Technical Institute and also gave some to several other blind people around the country. “We also recently established proper water supply for the institute. There are currently plans to help them get writing frames, walking sticks and wheelchairs, as well as support for education and assistance to start small businesses.”

 Outside of assisting the blind or running with Standard Chartered, the duo have also established a race of their own called ‘Hope for the Future Run’, which they currently organise in their town of Kikuyu. With over 15,000 participants, it is one of the biggest events in the district, which Wanyoike hopes to someday bring to other parts of Kenya in the future. Currently, they are also gearing up for the 2012 London Paralympics next year, which will give them yet another shot at breaking the world records and bringing back the gold to Kenya.

“Henry Wanyoike stands out not merely for the blindness that renders his accomplishments remarkable, but for the spirit with which he faces his challenges,” says Joanna Conlon, the Head of the ‘Seeing is Believing’ initiative, and indeed this is a man who shows that the human spirit endures. With a movie based on his story coming next year, the world can definitely learn from this determined athlete who has not let his condition get him down. “Accept the challenges,” advised Wanyoike.

“Life is full of challenges that you cannot run away from. Never give up, be passionate and fight for your dreams to live a life full of meaning.” With the support of his family and friends, Henry Wanyoike is a man whose great happiness is defined by helping those like him to achieve their dreams. While he may have lost his sight, Wanyoike has not lost his vision of becoming an true Kenyan athlete, and for that PASSIONS salutes this wilful and bright young star who is on his way to becoming a legend.

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