New record for blind runner

2004-09-21 16:14
Athens - When Kenyan Henry Wanyoike, blind since the age of 21, comes thundering down the track for the final sprint of a 10 000m race, he is tethered body and soul to his seeing-eye shadow-runner Joseph Kibunja Gachui.

The runner and guide rapport it is like no other relationship in sports. "Everything we do, we do together," says James.

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 000m run, clocking 31 minutes and 37.25 seconds.

The silver medallist 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, and covers 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.

Very sure of his abilities

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 T-shirt bearing his own likeness and the legend "I am a friend of Henry" above his website address: www.henry4gold.com.

Their intertwined life stories go back to the central Kenyan village, 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 twenty years than any country on earth. He excelled at 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.

Told he could still run

"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 centres 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 50m," Henry recalls. Despite the handicap of a guide that couldn't keep up, he not only won the gold but set a Paralympic record too.

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