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

  • Share
  • Read Later
Dominic Nahr / Magnum for TIME

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

Henry Wanyoike emerges from his home of pale blue metal sheets, with chickens squawking around his feet. It is 6 a.m., still fairly dark and unusually chilly for a Kenyan morning. A cold drizzle descends on his village outside the town of Kikuyu, turning the dirt roads into furrows of sticky mud. Henry and his running partner, Joseph Kibunja, green-and-white track suits firmly zipped, head out into the mist for their daily run. As the main gate to the yard swings open, a chicken makes a desperate dash for freedom. Joseph darts off in pursuit, only to return a moment later empty-handed. “Too fast,” he says.

Not many living things are faster than Henry and Joseph. The two distance runners, continuing the proud Kenyan tradition of greatness in the sport, are medal winners, record setters and national heroes. As they jog along slippery roadways lined with lush foliage and the occasional squat house, early risers, struggling through the slop on their way to work, cheer and wave. The pair run across a soggy soccer field adjacent to a hillside shantytown of broken-down shacks and winding alleyways reeking of urine. Henry spent his early childhood there, fatherless in a mud hut. Matching each other stride for stride, Henry and Joseph each hold one end of a short cord stretched between them. Henry could never run any other way. He is blind, and Joseph acts as his eyes.

(VIDEO: Henry Wanyoike: A Visionary Journey)

I join them on the road. Henry, 38, and Joseph, 37, chat incessantly. Joseph does most of the talking. He has to tell Henry what’s coming ahead. An ankle-twisting hole, an oncoming motorbike. In less than a mile, I’m terribly winded. At about 2,000 m, the air is too thin for my sea-level lungs. I’m no athlete anyway. A friend once asked me if I was the clichéd 100-lb. (45-kg) weakling in high school. Insulted, I said absolutely not: I was a 95-lb. (43-kg) weakling in high school. But Henry and I do have a couple of things in common. We both enjoy running, and we both can’t see. I’m not yet completely blind like Henry. But step by step, I’m getting there.

Henry’s blindness has barely slowed him down. He has won three gold medals in three Paralympics—his first in the 5,000 m at Sydney in 2000—setting two world records for a blind runner in the process. At this year’s London Paralympics, which start on Aug. 29, Henry is aiming to medal in the marathon. He has already excelled in that most strenuous of races, posting a personal-best 2-hr. 31-min. 31-sec. time at the Hamburg Marathon in 2005. Such success has made him one of the world’s most recognized disabled athletes. London-based Standard Chartered, awed by Henry’s ability and his close partnership with Joseph, has used the duo in TV advertisements. They have also been ambassadors for the bank’s charitable campaign to alleviate blindness, called Seeing is Believing.

So it is. As I strive to keep pace with Henry, the road is so rutted with gullies and slippery from the rain that I can barely maintain my footing. My debilitated sight makes locating and dodging potholes in my rain-splattered glasses almost impossible. Henry can’t see them at all, yet he glides next to me. Imagine for a moment hurtling down an unpaved Kenyan roadway as fast as your legs could carry you—all the while blindfolded. If it sounds scary, I can attest that it is. Henry does it every day.

(LIST: 10 Olympians Returning to Their Day Jobs)

Run, Henry, Run!
Henry got his first taste of victory as a teenager in 1988 at a sports meet for local schools. Though Henry had already honed his running skills—darting daily between his home and a nearby stream to fetch water—he attended that day as a spectator. But when one member of his school’s racing team went missing, a teacher drafted Henry to compete in the 5,000-m contest in his place. Henry was at first intimidated by his taller opponents, who shoved him so aggressively at the race’s start that he almost fell over. Yet in the end, Henry, his fellow students cheering him on, zoomed past them all for a big win. As his reward, a teacher poured syrup on his palms for him to lick off as a treat. He also won an orange.

By high school, Henry was regularly winning races in national competitions, and he continued training after graduation. While he took on work as a cobbler to help support his family, a career as an athlete was a real possibility. Running seemed his best chance to escape destitution, and he began dreaming of representing Kenya in marathons overseas. “When I was running, sometimes I was thinking of how I was from the slums,” he says. “Through sports I’d be able to change my family.”

Then disaster struck. In March 1995, at 20 years of age, Henry suffered a stroke. He appeared to recover—until the fateful morning of May 1. His mother angrily woke him, annoyed that he had overslept and not milked the cow before breakfast. Henry protested. It was still dark outside, he complained. Why was she rousing him so early? Within a few minutes, it became apparent to Henry that the sun had risen, but he couldn’t see it. Doctors eventually determined that the stroke had damaged his optic nerves. Over a mere night’s sleep, he had gone 95% blind. What little sight he had left vanished soon after.

PHOTOS: Neil Leifer’s 1984 Olympic Odyssey Around the World

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3