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In this episode we learn the incredible story of Anne Wafula Strike. Anne grew up in Kenya where an undiagnosed case of polio left her with limited movement in her arms and legs. After moving to the United Kingdom to get married she was prescribed a wheelchair which changed her life forever. She became a competitive wheelchair racer and competed for both Kenya and England in Paralympic sports.
In this interview we get to know snowboarder and mom to two rebel girls, Brenna Huckaby who read us the story of Anne Wafula Strike! Brenna talks about her love of sports and how she discovered a passion for snowboarding after losing her leg to cancer. We also hear about how she’s raising her girls to be strong and confident.
|Once, there was a girl who would one day race her way to victory – using her arms, a set of wheels, and iron-willed determination. Her name is Anne.
When Anne was born in 1969 in Kenya, her grandmother called her “a blessing on us all.” And Anne’s parents agreed. Anne would run around, tumbling and playing just like all the other kids…but one day…something happened.
Her body stopped working the way it used to. First she couldn’t walk, then talk, and after a time she couldn’t move her whole body from the neck down.
Local healers examined Anne in the five-room mud hut her family called home. They looked for snake bites…but didn’t find any. They gave her natural medicine and whispered healing prayers.
In other families – there may have been despair. But Anne’s dad, George, was convinced that his child was strong and would do great things. And he was absolutely right.
|I’m Brenna Huckaby, and this is Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.
A Fairytale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
In this episode: Anne Wafula Strike
|Some time after that scary day, Anne started to regain feeling in her arms. But she was still paralyzed from the waist down…and the reason her body had gone through this big change was still a mystery.
In her village, people whispered cruel things. That she was cursed and would make other children sick.
Her mother, Ruth, begged the neighbors to stop saying these hurtful things. But there was no stopping the rumors. Finally – looking for peace – the family moved to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
And it was there that the mystery of what had happened to Anne was uncovered. A doctor in Nairobi told George and Ruth that their little girl had come down with polio, a virus that attacks the nerves in the spine. Usually, kids get vaccines against polio at birth, but Anne had probably gotten a bad batch. The doctor recommended that she wear a cast from her ribs down to straighten out her legs and spine.
Anne hated the cast. It itched. And it made it hard to move.
But there was still fun to be had, and her brothers and sisters always made sure Anne felt included. They made up games like stacking bottle caps as high as they could go until they toppled over. Her older sisters drew beautiful designs all over her cast every three months when she got a new one.
Anne’s family brought love and light into her life.
|Anne’s parents were determined to give her a good education, so they sent her to boarding school at Joyland School for the Physically Handicaped in Kisumu, Kenya. By that time her itchy casts had been swapped out for crutches, heavy braces and big clunky boots.
Everything about Joyland scared Anne at first: the loud flushing toilets, indoor showers, the huge swimming pool, and sleeping in a big bed all by herself.
Anne was homesick for a while. But she learned to love her new school.
And, it there that a seemingly simple moment would foreshadow BIG things to come…when Anne saw a wheelchair for the first time in her life.
|Anne life moved forward – as they all do – with high highs and low lows and everything in between. She lost her mother a few years after starting at Joyland, and her father remarried. Anne eventually moved on to another school – one that was not specifically focused on children with disabilities – where she experienced friendships and happiness, along with losses and frustrations.
She excelled in school and eventually graduated and became the first person in her family to go to college.
She studied hard and got a degree in education and, in 1994, she landed a gig teaching history, Swahili, and communications at a college.
But Anne was exhausted all the time, struggling on her crutches to get to her classes on time. Each trek across campus felt like running a marathon!
If she could have seen herself just a few short years later, flying down a racetrack, arms a blur as she spins the wheels of her wheelchair…what would she have thought?
|After three years of teaching Anne met an English man who would become her husband, Norman Strike.
He was kind, warm, funny, caring, and he loved Anne with all his heart. Norman had come to Kenya to teach and they had fallen in love. After Norman went back to England, Anne went to visit him there. She missed home, but she loved Norman, so they decided to get married.
Anne moved her life from sunny, warm Kenya to the cold and grey of England.
It may not have been a fairytale, but from Anne’s perspective it was close to perfect. And even though England seemed strange to her, it was much more accessible for disabled people.
And it was there, in a doctor’s office that something happened that would change the course of Anne’s life forever.
While she was pregnant with her son, Timothy, struggling with her crutches and braces had become too much. And so, her doctor actually prescribed her a wheelchair.
Suddenly, moving around was so much easier! And her energy level was through the roof! What would she do with it all?!
|For Anne, everything was much easier with the wheelchair. She even decided to start going to the gym to work out.
She wheeled through the cavernous room, full of clanking metal machines and sweaty people working out.
The gym manager worked with her to help her find machines she could use with her wheelchair. They finally settled on simple free weights for her arms.
Then, one of the trainers spotted Anne working out. They encouraged her to head outside to the track with her chair.
One spin around that track and she was hooked.
Rain or shine, she whizzed down the track, arms spinning her wheels. And, as her strength grew, so did her speed.
The same trainer who had recommended Anne head out to the track approached her again. They asked if she’d ever heard of sports for people with disabilities: wheelchair javelin, wheelchair basketball, and even…wheelchair racing.
That one. Racing. Anne wanted to try it. So…she started working out harder.
She lifted weights and used hand cranks to strengthen the muscles in her arms and shoulders. She got a coach and he managed to secure a real racing chair that was sleek and fast.
Her body grew stronger and stronger; her racing times got better and better. She loved feeling the power in her arms and the breeze on her face as she whizzed by joggers on the track.
Then, just for fun, she entered a competition.
At first, she was slow. But then she doubled down on her training. Week after week, month after month Anne crept up on the competition. When another racer in England reminded her that the paralympic games were coming up, she decided to take a chance. She called the Kenyan paralympic office and asked to join the team.
Kenya had never competed in wheelchair racing before on the Olympic level. But when the team saw her race…Anne was in!
|Anne arrived in Athens, Greece for the games and looked around in complete awe. She met other athletes just like her from all over the world, participating in sports she hadn’t even known existed!
It was emotional. She couldn’t help the steady stream of tears rolling down her cheeks as she joined the other athletes in the opening ceremonies.
When it came time to race, Anne suited up in her uniform and wheeled into her starting position, bursting with pride to represent her home country of Kenya. But when the starting gun went off, she was slower than she should have been. Anne came in last at the 800 meter race. BUT – she’d made history as the first ever Kenyan wheelchair racer.
And the games weren’t over.
With her son and husband cheering from the stands Anne got ready for the 400 meter. With a breath, and a moment, she was off.
Arms flying, wheels spinning. She raced one of the best times of her life that day. She admitted later that she was too focused on enjoying the moment…to win.
She loved every second of competing.
|Anne continued to race for Kenya with pride, but eventually she was approved for her British citizenship. The English team really wanted Anne to race with them.
With a bit of guilt, she told the Kenyan team she would be leaving them to compete for another country.
Anne’s training got even more intense with longer hours, more experienced trainers, and better training equipment.
She didn’t always win, but she broke her own records, improved her physical fitness, and shaved precious seconds off her time. And she used her racing skills for good.
She raced for charity, raised money, championed disability rights, and started a foundation to give wheelchairs to children in Kenya and other African countries.
|In 2007, Anne returned to the Paralympic Games. This time she was representing her adopted country – England. On the big day, it was pouring rain and Anne was too nervous to even eat breakfast. She hid in the bathroom right before the race to calm her anxiety.
“Get it together,” she thought. “You can do this, Anne.”
Then she was at the starting line, gripping the cold metal rims with her black gloved hands. Her heart pounded in her ears. With a crack of the starting pistol the racers were off.
Anne pumped her arms, spinning her wheels as she never had before. When she was only 100 meters away from the end, she felt her arms turn to jelly. Her strength disappeared. She almost gave up.
But suddenly…she heard a voice in her head. It told her to go on: “Come on, Anne, you can do it. You’re almost there.” She believed that voice! Her energy levels spiked again and she pushed and pushed until she crossed the line.
Grinning from ear to ear, Anne accepted the bronze medal that day. When journalists asked her what her secret was, she replied: “Never give up.”
And Anne never has. She still suffers from symptoms related to her childhood polio infection which can make her tired and uncomfortable. But her body is a machine that crosses continents and flies through finish lines. After moving to England she became an activist, fighting for the rights of diabled people in her new home.
She says it is way past time to reimagine society – and break down the physical and mental barriers that stand in the way of true inclusion for diabled people.
For Anne Wafula Strike – the fight goes on. And the race is still to be won.