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My weakness became strength

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Shamlal Puri | August 10th 2014
 Anne Wafula Strike tackling a tough mud patch in tough mudder challenge

 

Kenya: Paralympic athlete Anne Olympia Wafula Strike, 45, is simply unstoppable when it comes to adrenaline pumping sports. Her disability has not stopped her from going the extra mile to achieve her life’s ambition of winning medals and making a name for herself in competitive games.

In the world of paralympics, many athletes have remarkable stories to tell, but even by these standards, the story of Kenyan-born Anne is truly remarkable.

The daughter of Nekesa Ruth and Athumani Wafula, a soldier in the Kenya Army, Anne was born as a fit child on May 8, 1969 in Mihu Village in western Kenya. She was given the middle name Olympia at birth – a title of prophetic significance in terms of the hurdles she would face and overcome later in life.

At the age of two and half, she contracted polio and was left paralysed from the waist down. No one from her village understood the disease and the local witchdoctor claimed that Anne was a victim of black magic.

 

 Anne Wafula Strike at Styoke Mandeville Stadium in Buckinghamshire

Superstitious villagers said she was cursed and referred to her as a snake because of the way she crawled around using her upper body. They demanded that she be left to die.

Her family was forced to flee from Mihu for Anne’s safety, and they relocated to Athumani’s military barracks in Nairobi.

She was enrolled at Joyland School for the physically handicapped run by the Salvation Army.

Tragically, Anne’s mother, Nekesa, died prematurely in 1979, leaving Athumani to look after their eight children.

Despite being written off by the society, Anne went on to achieve remarkable academic results. But in 1982, her family was caught up in the attempted military coup in which she nearly lost everything.

“I have vivid memories of that day, about my dad hiding me to keep me safe while he and other soldiers exchanged fire,” she recalls.

HEALTHY BABY BOY

Later, she became the first member of her family to attend university and then graduated from Moi University with an Education degree. She was posted to Machakos Technical College in 1998. It is during her teaching career that she met her future husband, Norman, from Newcastle who was teaching in Kenya at that time.

The two married and moved to Britain in April 2000. They set up home in Harlow, Essex.

Despite her condition she confounded doctors by giving birth to a healthy baby boy in 2001.

 

“I got interested in sports after the birth of my son Tim. I needed to trim my abdomen, and my husband suggested I go to the gym and take up wheelchair racing.”

She started going to the local running track and whizzing round in her ordinary wheelchair. A coach spotted her and took her under his wing. A local charity bought a proper racing wheelchair.

“I am firm believer of the saying ‘disability does not mean inability’,” she says.

Anne quickly picked up the sport, and after just two years of training, her Olympic career took off in 2004. She was selected to take part in the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece, making her the first East African to take part in the paralympics. She took part in the 400m finals in the T53 category after her disability was described as severe.

After that, there was no stopping her.

In a bizarre incident, when Anne was competing in the 2006 International Paralympics in Assen, Netherlands, the organisers put her in the T54 category reserved for athletes with less severe disabilities. This forced her to compete alongside athletes with more mobility than her. But such incidents have not dampened this champions go-getter spirit.

Anne was naturalised as a British citizen in 2006 and joined Team GB, competing for Great Britain.

She went on to win a bronze medal at the 2007 British Telecom (BT) Paralympic World Cup in Manchester.

A later medical check-up at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital confirmed that Anne was in the wrong category.

Dr Joseph Cowan, who examined her, concluded, “The amount of activity seen in the muscles is not likely to give her useful strength in the trunk in my opinion. I would therefore regard her as paralysed below T7.”

But the warrior she is, Anne has vowed to carry on her sport regardless of what category she is in: “Last year I became one of the first wheelchair users to complete the Tough Mudder Challenge, often described as the toughest assault course in the world, that is designed by the special forces.”

The event, covering a 12-mile course, and held on September 21, 2013, was peppered with lots of mud, ice baths, fire, wire cages and 10,000 volt electricity. But Anne overcame the challenges, making her the first wheelchair racer in Europe to cross the finish line.

Anne has a tough training regime.

“I have a coach, and when I’m training for competitions, I put in about 80 miles a week in my racing chair. This includes speed work and endurance pushing, both on the road and track, and sessions in the gym doing strength work every week.”

INCREDIBLE JOURNEY

 

Her incredible journey has also taken her to Buckingham Palace and earned her an audience with Queen Elizabeth. The monarch officially recognised Anneher for her work as a disabled athlete and involvement in charity work.

Another remarkable chapter was winning the BBC One competition, My Story, which set out to find the five most inspiring true-life stories from among 75,000 entries.

Her book, In My Dreams I Dance, has been published by Harpertrue. Her truly moving story is as much about giving hope to others as it is about herself.

Though she narrowly missed a place in the London 2012 Paralympics, Anne was a torchbearer carrying the Olympic flame in London before the event began.

Her eyes are firmly fixed on being selected as part of Team GB to compete in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil and winning a medal.

Anne is an active campaigner for those suffering from polio. As the ambassador for the British Polio Fellowship, she is helping raise awareness in the community and campaigning to end this debilitating disease. In Britain alone, 120,000 people have survived polio but suffer from post-polio syndrome.

Kenya has had intensive polio eradication campaigns this year and last year.

Turning to her own experience in Kenya she asks, “Imagine how many people in the world are suffering in countries where ignorance is rife.”

Anne has raised a lot of money for Able Children Africa and her own charity, the Olympia Wafula Foundation, which helps disabled and able-bodied people to reach their full potential in life.

“I am working hard at getting wheelchairs here in the UK to send to Kenya,” she said.

It is not every day that your name appears in the London Gazette - it only happens when you have the great privilege of being named in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List when you receive an award. Anne’s achievements and services to disability sport and charity were recognised by the Queen with the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) on 13th June, 2014.

“To say I feel deeply honoured would be an understatement. I still can’t believe it! It just goes to show that even someone from a humble background like my own can achieve. I am blessed!

“This recognition is not just for me but for all of us especially those that have given me opportunities to give back to society.”

Recently, she also addressed a gathering at the Houses of Parliament on the work of Results UK, one of the charities she supports. Its mission is to lobby British MPs to try and end world poverty.

“I spoke about the challenges facing children with disabilities and other marginalised groups in developing countries; the fact that children with disabilities are more likely to be out of school than any other group of children, the barriers created by discrimination and the lack of properly trained teachers and accessible schools.”

While Anne says she is happy living in Britain,  where she discovered the existence of wheelchair racing, she will never forget her Kenyan roots: “Kenya runs through my blood and will always be a huge part of who I am regardless of what kit I wear – I consider myself an Essex girl from Africa!”

shamlalpuriStandard@gmail.com

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