Douglas Wakiihuri first put Kenya’s name on the global athletics arena three decades ago when he won several international races thereby setting the trend for what has now become a norm for the country. ESTHER KIRAGU caught up with the running legend turned professional athletics coach affiliated with the Wadi Degla Club; an international club keen to cultivate the sports spirit in everyone.
It is a chilly Friday afternoon when I make my way to the Wadi Degla Club in Runda Estate, Nairobi where this interview with Douglas Wakiihuri takes place.
The Wadi Degla Club is a state-of-the-art sports club and it is obvious that a lot of deliberate effort was put to come up with this multifaceted private sports club that hosts professional sports academies, sports facilities, as well as leisure and health facilities.
“The idea of Wadi Degla Club in Kenya is a great resource because although we have great sports talents in Kenya, we often lack the right training facilities and I truly hope Kenyans can make great use of the opportunity,” an enthusiastic Wakiihuri tells me.
As one of the coaches at the club within which he runs the Wakiihuri Athletic Academy, he is keen to nurture athletics talent. Wakiihuri is a great believer in the need to invest in sports talent and skills growth from an early age and reckons that the Wadi Degla Club couldn’t have come at a better time.
A sportsman for over three decades, his greatest wish is for the country to place the same level of emphasis on sports as we do on education.
Born in Mombasa, Wakiihuri was raised by his mother who worked as a prison warden. Being a civil servant, she was often dispatched to different parts of the country and so Wakiihuri and his two siblings; all boys, grew up in a number of places such as Mombasa, Meru and Nairobi.
His memories of his younger days are marked with escapades of running from home to school in the morning and then back home for lunch and back to school in time for the afternoon lessons. Unbeknown to him, this was preparation for a career in sports.
“I got to know of the Lang’ata Women’s Prison athletic team while living in the prison quarters. I began training with them as well as participating in cross-country races despite lacking proper training and running gear. One of my uncles, a former long distance and middle distance runner who competed for Kenya in the 5,000 metres at the 1984 Olympics, as well as the 1984 World Cross-country Championships and in the 1987 World Indoor Championships, Wilson Waigwa, promised me that if I ran well, I could get a scholarship to go to college in the US. The prospect served as a great motivator to focus on running,” reveals Wakiihuri.
Although he says he wanted to make a career in athletics, he admits he had no idea how this would happen because at the time, running had not yet become a career that could put food on the table.
But as luck or fate would have it, at the age of 19, young Wakiihuri who had just completed high school met Kenyan-based Japanese writer and photographer Shunichi Kobayashi.
“As we interacted with Kobayashi, he talked greatly of an inspiring coach I had heard of called Kiyoshi Nakamura, who trained sportsmen in Japan using the Samurai spirit of commitment that is not only physical, but also mental and spiritual.
Through Kobayashi, I reached out to Nakamura expressing my desire to train with him in the hopes of becoming an Olympian. And so in 1983, Nakamura arranged for me to meet him in New Zealand where he and some of his runners were in training and after several weeks of scrutiny, he organised for me to go train in Japan,” reminisces a nostalgic Wakiihuri.
He remains indebted to his mum who did not discourage him from venturing into sports as a career.
In Japan, Nakamura and Wakiihuri became so close that a father-son bond was formed between them. Both had resounding determination and shared a similar past as Nakamura was born in Seoul, South Korea to very poor Japanese parents. Nakamura went to Waseda University in Tokyo at the age of 18.
He later on set a Japanese 1,500-meter record that remained unbroken for 13 years.
A career in athletics…
“It was tough at first but I eventually found my way around it,” he says of his experience away from Kenya. Wakiihuri reveals that the training was intense but it helped that his coach Nakamura believed in him and enrolled him as part of S&B Foods Company athletics team where he was coaching and where Wakiihuri learnt to train with the best runners.
Training twice a day, 120 miles per week, Wakiihuri improved steadily in road and track races. Over time, he graduated from 5,000 metres to 10,000 metres.
In 1987, Wakiihuri won Kenya’s first ever World Championships gold medal in the men’s marathon at the International Association of Athletics federation (IAAF) World Championships in Rome.
The following year, he came second at the Olympic games in Seoul and he was the winner of the London Marathon in 1989, ultimately raising Kenya’s status in the global athletics arena. It took 15 years before another Kenyan, Evans Rutto, won the London Marathon and after the 1987 World Championships in Rome, it took 20 years until Luke Kibet won the World title in Osaka, and 21 years before John Kelai won gold at the Commonwealth Games.
At 53 years, Wakiihuri still maintains a regular routine that entails waking up early to run on the tracks before heading to the gym for more training. He returned to the London Marathon in 2013 to run with Kenya’s First Lady H.E Margaret Kenyatta who was running to raise funds for her Beyond Zero initiative aimed at improving maternal health in Kenya.
“It was a great opportunity to coach and run with Kenya’s First Lady in her endeavor to inspire and change the lives of mothers and newborns,” he says.
Attesting to Kevin Durant’s quote: “hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard”, Wakiihuri believes that talent is only a parasite that must be on a strong post because once the post is broken, the talent is gone.
“My advice to young people is to keep pursing their talents despite the odds. I often say to them that the morning you decide to sleep in instead of going to train is the day you will miss out on a great opportunity,” he says.
He is delighted to see more Kenyans pursuing sports from an early age these days. As such, he helps athletes in any way he can such as advising them on training and injuries. Wakiihuri has also been training young athletes from Kibera for the last seven years.
He hopes sports can be made part of the school curriculum and even certified in Kenya so that it can fetch the same level of value as any academic certification.
“There are many skills that people can learn from sports hence the need to make it a core part of the curriculum rather than an extra-curriculum activity,” he says passionately.
Wakiihuri also has a music production studio where he composes and produces both patriotic and music that depicts life in informal settlements. Being a lover of arts, he reckons it’s time Kenya produced ghetto art, music and lifestyle, as it is a rich culture worth being documented.
Wakiihuri is married and has two daughters: 15-year-old Angel and 13-year-old Tamika. His wife and daughters are based in the US and so from time to time he travels to reconnect with them as he is fully based in Kenya.
Although he admits that being away from his family is tough, he reckons it is difficult to relocate elsewhere since he loves Kenya and that it is here that he has built his career. “There is nothing easy in life and so my wife and I strive to make our marriage and family thrive despite the distance,” he says.
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