NEWS

Blind Kenyan runner, friend tethered together in victory

When Kenyan Henry Wanyoike, blind since the age of 21, comes thundering down the track for the final sprint of a 10,000-meter race, he is tethered body and soul to his seeing-eye shadow-runner Joseph Kibunja Gachui. The runner and guide rapport is like no other relationship in sports. «Everything we do, we do together,» says Joseph. The prowess of this particular pair of joined-at-the-wrist athletes, both 30, was on display at the Athens Paralympics on Sunday, where Wanyoike axed nearly a minute off his own world record in the 10,000-meter run, clocking 31 minutes and 37.25 seconds. The silver medalist on Sunday straggled across the finish line almost two minutes later, a typical lag time when Wanyoike is in the race. The Paralympics, which run until September 28, and the world’s premier event for disabled elite athletes, cover 19 sports, including athletics. For a sighted runner, the absence of someone nipping at one’s heels can remove a critical incentive to dig deep and mobilize every atom of energy at the end of a race. But Wanyoike does not have that problem. «Sometimes Joseph cheats me,» he says, breaking into a radiant grin. «He says: ‘Watch out! There is someone right behind you, pick up your pace,’ but in reality no one is there.» Both men, friends since childhood and running-mates since 2000, laugh, almost as one. Indeed, Henry and Joseph – they insist on the informality – are so finely tuned to each other, on the track and off, that meeting with them is a strange experience, almost like talking to two halves of the same person. Self-effacing and subdued, Joseph is the yin to Henry’s yang: ebullient, charismatic and very sure of his abilities. Joseph is taller, almost frail, while Henry is leanly muscular, bristling with power. When we meet, he is wearing a T-shirt bearing his own likeness and the legend «I am a friend of Henry» above his website address on the Internet: www.henry4gold.com. Their intertwined life stories go back to the central Kenyan village of Kikuyu, where both were born. Before he was a teenager, Henry was already being groomed to join an elite corps of athletes in a country that has probably produced more world-class middle-distance runners over the last 20 years than any country on earth. He excelled at the 5,000 and 10,000, and the sky seemed the limit. In 1995, he had a mild stroke. He seemed to be recovering nicely, but then it happened. «I went to bed a normal person; the following day, I found myself in darkness.» Henry’s despair was total. The thought of never being able to run again was already unbearable, but it was worse than that. «I thought my life had come to an end.» Years passed before he was entered in a small pilot program in 1999 at a nearby hospital that, by chance, had one of the best centers for the visually impaired in East Africa. Henry remembers the day when he mentioned to a doctor that he had once been a good runner. «The doctor said I could still run if I wanted to,» Henry recalls, excitement creeping into his voice. «I did not believe him. I made him read an article out loud,» explaining how it works. A blind runner is connected to a guide by a tether, which the guide uses to subtly indicate – without breaking stride – when to turn, accelerate or avoid an obstacle, whether on the track or on the road, as in a marathon. Once Henry got the used to working with guides, he quickly established himself as a world-class non-sighted runner, earning a spot on the national squad for the 5,000-meter race at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000. He got so good, in fact, that he ran into another problem. «In Sydney, I dragged my guide for the last 50 meters,» Henry recalls. Despite the handicap of a guide who couldn’t keep up, he not only won the gold but set a Paralympic record too. And this is where Joseph comes back into the picture. «I was never a runner,» he says. «But I was so impressed by what Henry did in Sydney, by the glory he brought to our region, that I was determined to become his guide and run with him.» It might seem next to impossible that a young man with no athletic experience could bring himself up to near international levels by sheer dint of will, and that he would do so not to launch his own career as a runner but to help a friend. But that is exactly what Joseph did. «It only took a year for Joseph to be faster than me,» Henry says. «It took almost four years for us to be perfectly together as runner and guide.» Together they have never been defeated in either the 5,000 or the 10,000, and have set world records for both. Joseph does not seem perturbed by the thought of what he might have accomplished had he chosen to pursue his own career as a runner, but he admits that he had to make a choice. «I realized I could not do both,» he says. After Henry’s – or perhaps one should say Henry and Joseph’s – stunning victory in the 10,000-meter event at Athens, they have their collective sights set on the 5,000-meter race tomorrow. «I think I can finish in under 15 minutes,» Henry said. Before Henry went blind, he dreamed of great achievements on the track. «I wanted to be one of the best athletes in Kenya,» he recalled. Well, he is.