"I Have Lost My Sight but I Have Not Lost My Vision"

Interview with Henry Wanyoike
Henry(left) and his guides celebrate his world record in the 10,000 meters at the Athens Paralympics, 2004  [©Light for the World]

SGI Quarterly: What has been your biggest challenge and struggle in life?

Henry Wanyoike: To me the biggest challenge is to have been born and raised poor, and to come out of that has been very difficult. And as a disabled person, to be accepted by society is not easy. Also, even though I have four world records it has been difficult to convince people that I can do promotion for them, and it is not easy to buy shoes or other training attire. To travel out of my area is not easy because the roads are not good. And the training--I have to stop when it is raining because it is very slippery and muddy.

SGIQ: I understand you suddenly lost your sight more or less overnight due to a viral infection.

HW: I lost my sight in 1995. Before that I was good at athletics, and I used to represent my school at the national championships in Kenya and win trophies and certificates. My biggest dream was to be a champion, and to put Kenya on the map. But after losing my sight nobody believed that I could go out again and run.

I stopped from 1995 until 1999. Then I joined a rehabilitation center, and I came to understand that even people with a disability can do great things. One of the games teachers said, "Henry, you told me you have been very good in athletics. We don't want you to sit on your talent." I asked how I could be able to run if I can't see where I'm stepping, where I'm going, but he taught me how to run with a guide. I'm full of scars in the hands and my legs and face because of falling down, but I never stopped, I never gave up, because I really wanted to be a champion. To be a champion, there is a cost for everything. That's what I believe. There is nothing you can get easily, you need to sweat, you need to struggle to achieve. I always believe that man's achievement or failing to achieve his goals is a result of his own fault.

SGIQ: Now when running, do you still feel frightened sometimes?

HW: When we are running and the road is uneven and full of potholes, I feel frightened because I feel like I might fall down. If I don't trust my guide I cannot run, so I tried very much to develop trust, as he plays a very great role. So I believe I'm in safe hands, with someone who is responsible, very kind and very patient.

SGIQ: I read the story about the Sydney Paralympics when your guide couldn't continue and you had to drag him to the finish.

Victory in Sydney against all odds  [Courtesy of Henry Wanyoike]

HW: My guide was not able to run, as he was recovering from malaria but I was telling him, "No, no, we can make it," pushing him toward the finish. In fact I only just missed the world record. . . . That was my first international competition, so it was not easy for me. At that time I didn't know how to choose the best guide. Everybody was cheering me, telling me which direction to go because my guide could not. So I was listening to the spectators shouting, "Henry, Henry, Henry!" "Keep left, keep right, keep straight!"

SGIQ: How important is it to you to win?

HW: I believe I have to win because of the training I undergo every day. I have to be very well disciplined, to wake up very early in the morning, run for two, three hours, and sometimes we ride our bicycles for more than 60 km every day and then again in the evening, running, training. Winning to me means a lot as it's seeing the fruits of hard work. If you work hard, you will always get a reward, that is what I believe.

SGIQ: For people with disabilities or depression or other problems, would you encourage them to try running?

HW: I believe running, like all sports, can give you more courage and prevent you from thinking too much about your problems. When I'm running, I don't see my blindness, my disability. I even celebrate my blindness. I always see success. Every year I have two birthdays, my actual birthday and the day when I lost my sight and started a new life.

For disabled people, if you sit there and tell yourself you cannot make it, then you will not be fully accepted by society because you are not showing people that you can do things. When you are involved in sports, it's easy for you to convince people that you can make it in life. Through my running, for example, in Kenya I have changed the lives of many people, and even now society is accepting disabled people in the country because of what they have seen me doing. Now the Disability Bill has been passed in parliament, and I'm very happy about that. The time has come for opportunities, not for sympathy. We need to show the world that disability is not inability! We are capable of doing things.

SGIQ: I heard that you're now working toward tackling the triathlon.

HW: Yes. I always want to have challenges in my life, and now I'm taking swimming lessons. And I believe after the triathlon I will go straight to the Ironman. I want to show that we are very, very much capable. I want to show that if I can make it in sports, then in another profession it will also be easier for me.

Training in Kenya  [©Jörg-Henning Meyer]

When you finish a marathon, you have more courage and confidence to do anything in life. I compare life with a marathon. There are always ups and downs, and so many curves--it's a long way. We should never give up. And we should go at our own pace.

I also believe in giving back to the community. Now we are raising funds for one million people with cataracts and eye problems to receive operations. More than 20,000 cases have been attended to--people who now have sight where they could have been blind all their life. I want to show if you are blessed, it's always good to stretch your heart and remember those who have not yet realized their dreams.

I'm also working with schools to plant trees. I'm calling it "Children with Trees." I'm encouraging all schools in Kenya, every child, to plant a tree. So far we have planted more than 100,000 trees.

Kenyan runner Henry Wanyoike won gold medals in the Athens Paralympics in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, setting new world records for both. In 2005 he set new world records for the visually-impaired marathon twice within eight days--in Hamburg and London.