'I’m now 47. All sportspeople face this grim reality some time or the other. As years advance, focussing on one event would be good'
Middle and long-distance runner Henry Kirwa says he will compete for the last time in the 1,500m and 5,000m at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
But it's not the end of the road for the Kenyan.
“Tokyo Games will mark the end of my Paralympic career, but I am not done yet. I shall compete in marathon after the Tokyo Games,” Kirwa stated.
The four-time Paralympic gold medallist and three-time world record holder hopes his transition to marathon is successful. Kirwa made his debut at the age of 35 at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games where he won gold in all his events (1,500m and 5,000m T13, and 10,000m T12).
While he admits age has caught up with him, Kirwa's will to keep running, hence the plans to switch to marathon.
“I’m no more a young man, I’m now 47," he said. "All sports people face this grim reality some time or the other. As years advance, focussing on one event would be good. I have chosen the marathon.
“I will be able to concentrate on building my endurance and stamina, a key need for marathon running.”
Carrying family legacy
Kirwa comes from a famous sports family. Paul Tergat, the first Kenyan to set a marathon world record in 2003, is his brother.
His mother Christine Cheruiyot was a national-level athlete and his father Kirwa Cheruiyot served in the military; he started as an athlete and later switched to shooting, becoming a sharpshooter. He won a bronze medal at the Military Games in Berlin, Germany.
Being from Kenya, a well-known marathon powerhouse, Kirwa always aspired to be an athlete and have his name alongside his brothers. As young boy, the three-time Paralympian would often join his brothers’ training sessions.
But they would tick him off saying he was wasting his time running with them since he had an impairment.
Kirwa would reply: “I want to keep fit and improve my stamina.”
His persistence paid off eventually. He improved as an athlete. Later in 2007, he entered competitive sports for people with impairments and etched his name in the record books with a plethora of podium finishes.
2008 Getty Images
Currently, Kirwa trains vigorously in his village to reach his goal of winning two gold medals at the postponed Tokyo 2020 Games and aims to break two world records as well.
For now though, the T12/T13 runner hopes to cap the year by winning the Sportsman of the Year Award (SOYA) in Kenya to add on to his three previous awards (2008, 2012 and 2016).
With COVID-19 disrupting the sports calendar globally, Kirwa has had his share of struggles. In May when the lockdown began, he was forced to sell 40 trees from his farm to cover some debts and expenses. However, he remains upbeat, thanks to his qualification for the Tokyo Games in April.
Positive about Tokyo 2020
Kirwa is all focussed on the two gold medals up for grabs at the Games next summer.
“The financial situation is not good as we are not getting support from the government but we must keep training. I encourage my Paralympic family to remain strong and to keep training and not lose hope” he said.
Kirwa’s three podium finishes in Beijing 2008 brought so much joy to him that he wanted his community back home to have a similar experience. With his heroic achievement being rewarded financially by the Kenyan Government, the then-35-year-old dedicated 50 per cent of it to philanthropic work in his community.
“I grew up in a poor family. I could never afford the education I wished. This motivated me to help 15 families having people with disabilities. I bought them a cow each to help ease their financial burden.”
Kirwa pays school fees for the less fortunate children in hopes of providing better opportunities. The world noted his generosity with the United Nations naming him the Person of the Year for Kenya in 2009 as well as East Africa Community Ambassador in recognition of his philanthropic work in 2015.
He has also set up the Henry Kiprono Kirwa Foundation that helps people with impairments in Kenya and East Africa. His aim is to see people with impairments offered the same opportunities, especially in education and sports.
“Paralympic Games’ achievements have helped people living with disabilities win recognition in Kenya. Some have gone on to hold high positions in the government," said Kirwa.
"This inspires me."
2016 Getty Images