Blind Faith: How Kenyan Paralympian Henry Wanyoike Triumphed

How Kenyan Paralympic hero Henry Wanyoike triumphed over despair, ran his way to glory—and got his life back

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Dominic Nahr / Magnum for TIME

Wanyoike’s running guide, Joseph Kibunja, leads him during a training session in their hometown of Kikuyu

Henry became severely depressed, even suicidal. “I was in a great shock,” Henry says. “I was hiding myself in the house. I was thinking I’d rather die than live with those challenges.” He became almost entirely dependent on his family, to feed him, to take him to the toilet, to do just about everything. Worst of all, he lost hope. His goal of running for his country had, it seemed, evaporated with his sight. “I was thinking that was the end of me,” he says. “My dream would never come true.”

Parallel View
As I listened to Henry’s story, I could not help remembering the day, 29 years ago, when I found out I was going blind. A doctor peered into my eyes with a bright light, leaned back in his chair and asked me to leave the room for a moment. In my place, he called in my mother. Obviously, something was very wrong. A few minutes later, the doctor invited me back. In as matter-of-fact a tone as he could muster, he told me I had retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic, degenerative condition that eventually leads to blindness—for which there is no cure or treatment, no way to slow the descent into darkness. The early symptoms are night blindness and tunnel vision (the loss of peripheral sight). Today, I have trouble finding my way at night or navigating through a crowded street. Over time, the window through which I can see will become ever smaller until it completely closes.

Henry was dealing with a much more destabilizing situation than mine. My sight deteriorates every few years, allowing me to adjust to my reduced abilities in stages. By college, I had given up my bicycle; in my 30s, I thought it best to avoid going out alone at night in unfamiliar cities. Henry didn’t have this luxury of time. In an instant, he had to relearn nearly everything he knew. He had to find a new life to replace the one taken away. The process took him years.

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Henry’s road back began at a low-vision clinic in a Kikuyu hospital. His mother, desperate to find a cure for Henry, dragged him to doctor after doctor, eventually finding German specialist Petra Verweyen. She couldn’t restore Henry’s sight, but she did have ideas on how to restore his soul. Verweyen, with the aid of some tasty cakes, got Henry to talk openly about his blindness. Slowly, she rebuilt his self-confidence. In 1998, to prove to Henry that he could do a lot on his own, Verweyen sent him off to another town by bus to retrieve a young, blind girl and escort her to a special school. Henry marks the successful trip as a major turning point in his recovery. The next year, Verweyen got Henry enrolled in the Machakos Technical Institute for the Blind, a school that helps those who have lost their sight late in life to learn braille and vocational skills. He joined knitting classes, which, he believed, could teach him a trade.

Most of all, Henry began to run again. When admitted to Machakos, he listed athletics as a hobby, but never thought much of it. One day the deputy principal asked Henry to join his morning and evening jogs. Henry didn’t take the offer seriously. How could he possibly run as a blind man? “I was afraid,” he says. “I would not believe that I would be able to run.” The physical-education teacher, who was also blind, gave him a pep talk, regaling Henry with tales of another blind athlete. Henry decided to give it a try. He began jogging around the institute’s grounds with the deputy principal and another, sighted student, who acted as his first guide. Learning to run again was a huge challenge. His hands bear the scars of the numerous stumbles he suffered during those early days. But with practice, he became more comfortable, and within a few weeks he had gained enough confidence to register for a 3-km race in Machakos. He won.

(PHOTOS: The 2008 Paralympics)

Henry got his life back. “I was able to see that there are so many things I can do,” he says today. “I started to accept myself, that I was able to do wonders. I started to see I had another future.” A year later, in 2000, he won gold at the Sydney Paralympics.

Life’s a Marathon
On another crisp morning in Kikuyu, Henry stands on the side of the town’s main road, an air horn in his hand, awash in young children. Every year, Henry organizes a charitable event he calls the Hope for the Future Run. Some 10,000 people from across the nation participated in June; thousands more came to watch the spectacle. The children waiting at the starting line jostle one another in a morphing, squirming, giggling compression of human energy, wearing a motley, multicolored collection of T-shirts, sweats, jeans, coats and knit hats. Henry sounds the horn, setting off a stampede of cheering youngsters, some so eager to reach the finish that they run out of their shoes—literally. In their wake, a man saunters across the road picking up sandals left behind.

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