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

Next to join the race is a somewhat less sprightly band of seniors, gamely trotting in matching bright green T-shirts. Then a brigade of handicapped folk rolls by, in three-wheeled carts propelled by hand cranks. The final group—the young and able—is so anxious to get going that they push the starting line farther and farther ahead, while volunteers try vainly to contain the crush of bodies. Henry is beaming. “I don’t know what to say,” he tells me. “My community is here in a big way, because they see the work we are doing.”

The June race is a small part of that work. The foundation Henry formed in 2002, housed in a cramped office in Kikuyu’s version of a downtown, operates a two-room, tin-roofed nursery school in the shantytown where Henry was born. The foundation also donates cows to needy families. At the Machakos school, Henry raised the $23,500 needed to dig a well in 2008, providing the institution with a reliable source of fresh water.

Nothing Henry achieves would be possible without his guide, Joseph. If Henry is a remarkable athlete, then Joseph is, in certain respects, even more so. Finding a guide for a blind runner like Henry is no simple task. Not only does a guide have to be a strong athlete in his own right, capable of keeping pace with gold medalists, he also has to win races without winning them. The guide is not supposed to steal his charge’s spotlight. Most of all, Henry needs a partner he can totally trust, so he can run at top speed in the full confidence that his guide can be relied upon to steer him away from disaster. It is a uniquely selfless job, one it took Henry quite a while to fill. Henry’s guide in Sydney collapsed at the end of his gold-winning performance.

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Joseph turned out to be the unlikely perfect match. The two were boyhood friends, living about 800 m apart, but Joseph was never interested in running. Instead of attending high school, Joseph became a carpenter. Then in late 2000, Henry, still struggling to find the right guide, asked Joseph if he would train to play that role. At first, Joseph thought he could never keep up with Henry—“I was not even able to finish 100 m,” he says—and his family protested that running would only distract him from his money-earning job. But Joseph, seeing his old friend in need, decided to try. Two years of tough training followed. His first international race as Henry’s guide was the 1,500 m at the All-Africa Games in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2003; they struck gold. The two have been inseparable ever since, running together in events from Dubai to Beijing. Not once has Joseph stepped across the finish line ahead of Henry. “I didn’t want to be very well known or to be very popular,” says Joseph. “I don’t dream of running on my own. I hope maybe, God willing, we’ll be together 100 years.”

Joseph is much more than a running partner to Henry. He’s more like Henry’s guardian angel. Wherever Henry might be, Joseph isn’t far away, eyeing him warily, always ready to swoop in, take Henry by the arm and help him navigate through a crowd or down the chaotic streets of Kikuyu. “I thank God for having Joseph with me,” Henry says. “He has a big heart. That is why I love him. There is a teamwork, a partnership, we are trying to show the rest of the world, that we need each other to move ahead.” And if Joseph isn’t there to lend his eyes, someone else always seems to be. Sometimes it is his wife Myllow, or a staffer at Henry’s foundation. Sometimes it’s just a friend or neighbor who happens to be nearby. Henry too isn’t ashamed to ask for aid. At one point he turned to my wife, who accompanied me on the trip, for help into a dark building (putting her in the unusual position of assisting me with her left arm and Henry with her right). “He always trusts everyone,” Joseph says of Henry.

That’s something I can’t do. My life has been a relentless quest for normality, a day-by-day battle to preserve as much as my deteriorating sight allows. I have overcome by refusing to concede to my disability; Henry has overcome by embracing his. He realizes that his blindness has defined who he is and what he has accomplished. “For 17 years, since I lost my sight, I think I have done so many [more] things than what I did for 21 years before,” says Henry. “That is why I don’t think of turning back.” His advice to me is to follow his lead. “The most important thing is to accept yourself,” he tells me.

I’m not there yet. As Henry, Joseph and I jog together that rainy morning, my lungs burning in the sparse air, it becomes painfully apparent that they are dragging their feet so I can keep up. Joseph turns to me and says: “Now we’ll show you our regular speed.” A few steps and they pull away, leaving me behind, slightly embarrassed, in the mud. Henry charges forward effortlessly, strong and sure-footed, down the uncertain path. Maybe one day I’ll catch up.

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