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Bangkok Post

07 November 2005


Racing towards VICTORY



Some say that running is a metaphor for escape. Though blind, world track champion and Olympic gold medallist Henry Wanyoike uses running as a way to race towards his goals and achieve personal glory.

"I've always dreamed of seeing myself with a gold medal and carrying flowers," the 31-year-old Kenyan said. "It doesn't matter what background you come from. You can still be a very good achiever and be driven."

Wiry and alert, and though he may laugh occasionally, Wanyoike does not break into a smile often. Rather he sits up tense ready for the unexpected to happen. His first time in Bangkok, he was here to participate in the Standard Chartered Run which was recently held at Lumphini and Benjakiti parks. The marathon was divided into 3km and 11km marathons. For the visually impaired category, runners ran in pairs, with one individual wearing a blindfold and the other acting as the 'eyes' of the team.

"I may have lost my sight, but I never lost my vision," he said matter-of-factly. "I tell people that we need to maintain our vision, and accept what drives them, and to keep going, because they can all become champions in their own ways. Keeping my vision has enabled me to maintain who I am today."

His story sounds like something from an urban legend: Wanyoike went to sleep one night in April 1995, but when he awoke the next morning he found himself to be 95 percent blind. Wanyoike discovered that it was a minor stroke during his sleep that robbed him of his sight. "I thought it was the end of me, and that I could never run again. It took me three years to accept my condition, but only after a lot of guidance," he said.

"When I was 12 years old I would run from home to school, the distance was 6km one way. I had to run in the evenings, and that led to school competitions. One time the class representative never showed up, so I was chosen to run in the 500m school race and I won. Back then I was just running for fun, but I know whenever I run, [no matter the occasion], I always feel happy because I am doing what I want to do. And now I am setting new records, and people see me on TV, so my dreams are coming true."

It is rare to find such an extroverted runner, as some of the athletes who participate in marathons are introverts, enjoying the challenges of competing alone rather than playing team sports such as football or basketball.

Wanyoike said he had to learn how to open himself up and trust another individual when he became blind. For the past five years he has been running with his childhood friend and fellow runner Joshua Kibunja. When running, the two men are joined together by a piece of rope, 30cm long, wrung around their wrists.

"When we run together, we are happy, because we know that we're after the same goal," he said. "We're out to win."

At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Wanyoike won the gold medal in the 5,000m race for the visually-impaired, making history as the first African to ever win an Olympic gold in that category. His winning streak continued, bringing home the gold medal in the 10,000m race. Four years later at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, he broke all world records in both races in the blind category. Soon after, former President Moi of Kenya honoured him with the Order of the Grand Warrior Award for bringing fame and honour to the country.

"Even if it's just the individual who is successful, the entire national feels proud too," he said.

At the All Africa Games held in Abuja, Nigeria in October 2003, Wanyoike won the gold medal in the 1,500m race.

The previous year at the International Paralympics Committee World Championships in Lille, France, he made history again by breaking two world records in the 10,000 and 5,000m.

"When you run blind it is visually challenging of course, and finding a guide is not easy, because you have to develop trust. I wondered how I was going to run without being able to see, I had so many questions in my head," he explained. "When you run on your own, you do everything alone. I have so many scars from running [blind], but it has not stopped me from running at all. So through running marathons it has been a good challenge and a good lesson for me."

Chosen by Michael Denoma, head of Consumer Banking, to be a Goodwill Ambassador for the Standard Chartered Bank's "Seeing is Believing" global campaign, Wanyoike participates in international races around the world.

"Michael was surprised to see two guys attached together," he said with a chuckle. "That's how we met [three years ago], at the starting line of a marathon. He appointed [Joshua Kibunja and I] to be Goodwill Ambassadors, that's how we went to Singapore with Standard Chartered Bank."

He now travels across the globe volunteering in marathons sponsored by the Standard Chartered Group.

The "Seeing is Believing" campaign provides corneal transplants for underprivileged patients, and encourages the blind with hopes of being able to see again. With every kilometre run in a marathon, Standard Chartered donates $1,000 (41,000 baht) to the campaign. Roughly 80 percent of blind individuals are curable, but if they remain blind without medical guidance there is the chance that they will be blind for the rest of their lives. In the world at large over 45 million people are considered blind.

Along with the "Seeing is Believing" marathon, Wanyoike also participates in the Greatest Race on Earth (Groe), which is another event sponsored by Standard Chartered. Groe is an intense marathon that involves four runners each in four different countries, Kenya, India, Singapore and Hong Kong, all running together as a team at the same time.

"Marathons are a way of sending a message to people. In Nairobi last Sunday over 12,000 people took part in the race,"' he said. " I feel like a different person now too, because I inspire people, so I feel very happy."

With this much gumption and zest for life, it appears that the sky is the limit for Wanyoike. He has proved to himself as well as the rest of the world that with determination and a lot of heart, any individual can conquer disability and ignorance.

"This is my career, this is my life," he says. "Sometimes I want to give up, but then I realise that I only find myself by running again."

|Starting side|




Bengt Pflughaupt tells the unbelievable history of Henry Wanyoike - to reread in the Biographie "Henry Wanyoike. My long run in the light "

Link: Herder Verlag

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