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

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.

(PHOTOS: Olympic Winners Savor the Moment)

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.

PHOTOS: The London Olympics Come to a Show-Stopping Close

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.

(LIST: 50 Olympic Athletes to Watch)

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.

MORE: Oscar Pistorius: The Blade Runner Makes Olympic History

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