IN APRIL 1995, Henry Wanyoike suffered a mild stroke shortly before his 21st birthday.
The fiercely athletic Kenyan, who had excelled at the 5,000 metres at school, suffered damage to his optic nerves during his recovery, and was rendered almost completely blind shortly after.
“I haven’t been able to see the world since May 1995,” he says, “but I see the world with my heart and with the help of my guide.”
Henry’s guide is childhood friend Joseph Kibunja. The duo, both 36, have spent the last 10 years running marathons together across the globe, raising money for good causes and motivating children to realise their full potential.
Henry and Joseph won gold in the 5,000 metres at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, then broke both the 5,000 and 10,000-metre records at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens (with times of 15:11:07 and 31:37:25 respectively).
In April 2005, they enjoyed perhaps their finest athletic achievement – breaking the world marathon record in London (2:32:51) then bettering it a week later in Hamburg by more than a second (2:31:31).
Since 2003, Henry and Joseph have partnered with Standard Chartered bank to promote its ‘Seeing is Believing’ community programme – preventing and curing avoidable blindness in poor countries – and running marathons worldwide.
The two men will run the 10km challenge of the Dubai Marathon tomorrow morning, and have also been visiting schools in the city to share their inspirational story.
City Times met Henry, who hails from Kikuyu on the outskirts of Nairobi.
We’re attached by a short tether on our fingers, so we can swing our arms together and keep the same rhythm. We try to show people the importance of teamwork, trust and being patient with your friends.
It was very difficult in the beginning, because we weren’t used to it. We faced challenges, and we fell down a lot, but now it’s easier.
I know all the challenges I went through when I lost my sight almost 16 years ago. When we go to the hospitals (mainly in Africa and Asia) and meet people who have been treated we feel great. Our target is to give sight to 20 million people worldwide. It’s a big number but we’ve already surpassed our initial target of one million. We’re committed to it with all our heart.
As a child. The school was almost five kilometres away, and there was no school bus so we had to run there. Before school we had to work in the morning, fetching water or looking after the animals, then we ran back to do our other duties. It was tough, but from those challenges you can become a champion.
In school I was very good at the 5,000 metres. My dream was to become a hero and a champion for my country, but after losing my sight I never gave up. I had to stop training for three years, but I came to realise I could do more with no sight if I had a vision, and I could still achieve.
You also have your own charity, the Henry Wanyoike Foundation, in Kenya. Can you tell us about that?
We do many things – we have one department supporting education, we have a sports and environment department where we organise events such as soccer games, and we give messages about HIV and drugs. We do a lot of motivational speaking in schools, because we want to inspire the children so they can achieve their goals. We also support people with disabilities, old people and people with AIDS, and we give food to those in need.
You serve as an ambassador for the International Paralympic Committee. What does your role comprise?
We try to create awareness about sports for people with disabilities, and we also try to ensure that people with all kinds of disabilities can participate in sports. Through coming together, we can share a lot and promote peace. We are also showing the world we are able, even with our disabilities, if we are given opportunities.
This is our fourth time in Dubai. Last year we ran the 10km challenge in 35 minutes but we want to do better this year. It’s our first competition in 2011, then we’re running the full Hong Kong Marathon next month and the World Championships in Turkey in March.
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