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Amputee ski his way to a champion

A snake bite that saw Daniel Safari Katheku’s leg amputated would have slowed his life. Instead, it sharpened his competitive edge. He is now an international skier

Sandra Wekesa @andayisandra

In the dusty plains of Mwingi, deep in some remote village, Daniel Safari Katheku innocently played with his peers without a care in the world. As a five-year-old, never had he envisioned himself trade playing the dry and thirsty grounds of Mwingi with skiing the snow-packed slopes of South Korean mountains.

But what happened on this jolly day  of 1997 may have turned tragic for a young soul, but against all odds did set Katheku on a path to conquering the mountains, becoming a skier of international repute.

On the fateful day, Daniel remembers a puff adder striking his foot at the speed of lightning turning playtime into a tragic affair. But as luck may have had it, Daniel’s life was saved. But he had to lose the lower part of his leg after medics at Mwingi General Hospital were forced to amputate it.

Hope against hope

Two decades later, the loss of his leg has not slowed his life. It has neither shattered his dreams nor hopes. But it has put him into the select group of people who have national anthems played for them, not because they are Heads of State, but because they are elite athletes. He is an international skier.

But how did a boy from a dusty village end up competing in snow fields of South Korea? Katheku remembers going about his studies at Joy Town Secondary School, Thika in 2013 when he  bumped onto a programme online. Since he had interest in athletics, he decided to venture into it.

“Dream Programme, by South Koreans, was meant to help non-winter countries participate in skiing. At first, I didn’t have any knowledge of the sport. But it interested me. So, when the programme representatives came to Kenya the same year, I was lucky to be among those picked and sponsored for training in Korea,” Katheku recalls.

His training wasn’t a walk in the park because he had to master the skills fast and on one leg. The other challenge was adapting to the freezing weather in South Korea. Even so, he perfected his skills and started participating in international skiing competitions. In as much as he didn’t believe that he could do it, he made sure that his stay abroad was worthwhile.

In 2014, while still skiing in South Korea, he was called to Turkey, by Mermet Turkesh, one of the managers of Turkey Airline, who had started a football club. Katheku, therefore, played professional amputee football in Turkey for Abysk Amputee FC  between 2014 and 2016.

The 26-year-old says that he was privileged when a well-wisher gave him a prosthetic leg as a Christmas gift.  “It was such a glorious moment because at least for the first time in 20 years I was able to walk just like any other person,” he says.

Walking on two legs brought a feeling of nostalgia. “I remember the last time I walked with my two legs, I was playing with my friends when a snake bit me. I got to Mwingi General Hospital in good time to save my life. I was later referred to Garissa Provincial Hospital since it was more equipped to treat snake bites,” he recalls.

His parents had to sell almost everything in their possession to settle the hospital bills. He underwent depression for he didn’t know how best he would face life with just one leg. “Also, many people in school didn’t want to associate with me. Superstitious people thought I was cursed, therefore I lost so many friends. They thought I would amount to nothing. Perhaps become a village cobbler if luck was on my side,” he narrates.

Competition

But he proved naysayers wrong. “In high school, I would participate in every competition that came up. It wasn’t easy as I used to walk in crutches. But at least I would do my level best to win and make my school and myself proud. I was good at high jump. I also played football as a striker,” says Daniel.

Now with all his practice and knowledge on skiing, he is looking forward to disability sport classification in Netherlands in November. “Disability sports classification is a system that allows for fair competition between people with different types of disabilities,” he says.

His parting shot to any person living with disability is that hard work pays. “Instead of pity partying and seeking sympathy from others, it would be great to just stand up for yourself,” Katheku advises.

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