Growing up as a student at Thika’s Yoytown Special School, Hellen Wawira Kariuki would never have imagined competing in elite sport. Let alone representing her country in international competition… let alone leading her school in inter-school games.
But on Tuesday the 29-year-old powerlifter will grace television screens in millions of homesteads globally when she leads Kenya out, carrying the national flag at the Tokyo Paralympic Games’ opening ceremony as the world prepares to celebrate what promises to be an exciting two weeks of humbling sporting triumphs.
The accreditation hub at Tokyo’s iconic Big Sight International Exhibition Centre was busy yesterday with officials, media and support teams completing the formalities ahead of the opening ceremony to be held at the Tokyo National Stadium.
And with Japan’s Covid-19 cases on the increase, organisers are stepping up their protocols in a bid to avoiding the August 24 to September 5 Games turning out to be a super spreader event.
Wawira opens Kenya’s campaign here on Thursday at the Tokyo International Forum where she is entered in the 41-kilogramme category with competition starting at 1pm local time (7am Kenyan time).
On Monday, she was beside herself with the excitement of being confirmed as flagbearer at Tuesday’s ceremony.
“While we were in Nairobi, I’d been told that I would be the flagbearer, but it really sank in yesterday (Sunday) when our chef de mission told me that indeed I will carry the flag,” an excited Wawira said.
“Kenyans should expect a huge surprise for me in the competition – I will not let them down,” she added.
“She will bring gold!,” her coach Lena Nyaboke Marita interjected.
Wawira held her first training session at 5pm yesterday, local time, under coach Nyaboke at the Tokyo International Forum competition venue and will be back at 7am Tuesday before preparing for the opening ceremony penciled for 8pm to 11pm local time (2pm to 5pm Kenyan time).
The Kenyan contingent will march into the arena after Croatia, whose flagbearer will be T20 (intellectual impairment) long jumper Mikela Ristoski, with Wawira and co. followed by the Ivorian delegation led by F40 (short stature) shot put thrower and powerlifter Adou Herve Ano.
Having competed several times on the African continent, this will be the fourth global competition for Wawira, but by far the most prestigious.
She previously featured at the 2017 World Championships in Mexico, finishing fourth in the up to 41kg category, and was also fourth at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in the bench press.
In 2016, she competed at the World Cup in Malaysia, having been encouraged to take up powerlifting by Gabriel Magu who represented Kenya at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“I used to basically compete in wheelchair racing while in school and first started taking powerlifting seriously in 2015.
“Gabriel Magu encouraged me very much, especially after he represented the country at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.”
Meanwhile, International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President, Brazil’s Andrew Parsons, told journalists at the pre-competition press conference Monday that it’s a huge relief to finally see the Games up and running.
“As you can imagine the last 18 months have been very tough on the International Paralympic Committee and international Paralympic movement,” he said.
“A lot of uncertainty right after the postponement of these Games and how we could deliver these Games in a safe way, how we could deliver these Games and count on the participation of athletes from around the world.
“So to see this today, and we are so close, we are a little bit more than 24 hours from the Opening Ceremony, it’s really emotional to me. As you can imagine it was not easy to replan the Games. Someone using a figure of speech just mentioned at the time that it was like doing a U-turn with a Formula 1 car at 300km an hour.”
Parsons said the Paralympics provides a special stage for persons with disabilities as they have been largely ignored during the coronavirus pandemic period.
“The Paralympic Games is the only global event that puts persons with disabilities on the centre stage, that values persons with disability. It’s the only global event that gives voice to persons with disability,” he said.
“During the pandemic persons with disabilities have been left behind, across different societies around the world. They have been denied the same level of services that non-disabled persons have access to. So in a moment where they need their voice to be heard the most, we are giving them the voice.”