Heristone Wanyonyi: I am fast enough to walk

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What you need to know:

  • Heristone Wanyonyi was born on June 30, in West Pokot.

  • He attended Psigirio Primary School, Chewoyet High and Ortum Boys, and Kenya Police Training College in Kiganjo.

  • The racewalker boasts of two national secondary school games titles. He also won the East Africa Games in Gulu, Uganda in 2018 and World Under-20 championships in Nairobi in 2021. He is the first Kenyan to win gold at the global stage.

  • Heristone holds the national record in the 10 kilometres road race of 45:18 minutes which he posted in Muscat, Oman in 2022.

  • He won the Most Promising Boy of the Year at the Sports Personality of the Year Awards (SOYA Awards) in 2021.

Heristone Wanyonyi is one of the top racewalkers in Kenya. He stunned the world after clinching gold in the 10,000 metres race walk at the 2021 World Athletics Under-20 Championships in Nairobi. Wanyonyi recently graduated from the National Police Training College Main Campus, Kiganjo, Nyeri County.

How did your athletics career start?
Growing up, it was normal for me to walk for more than 10 kilometres. I used to run from home to school. Because I am very fast, my parents used to send me to the market a lot. I believe I can walk faster than I can run. Racewalking is the second sport I’ve ever tried. I used to run 10,000 metres on the track. It was so tough but mostly I reached the county level. My coach, Wesley Korir, advised me to try racewalking, which I did from 2015 when I was in Grade Seven. I combine racewalking with running to gain speed. Running helps me practise my speed work. My high school teacher, Edwards Moti, gave me a lot of moral support in racewalking. He also supported me financially. The first major racewalk competition I ever watched was the 2016 Olympic Games held in Brazil, which Wang Zhen from China won. I found the sport so interesting and I decided to take it seriously. I was happy and ready to try something different.

Racewalking is an enjoyable sport. It has a lot of rules but the most important one is to ensure your leg is on the ground all the time. The biggest challenge I encountered was getting the technique right. Racewalking also needs special shoes. They are expensive, costing more than Sh17, 000 a pair. My coach used to encourage me to look for locally made racewalking shoes.

However, the sport has not been embraced by many. I remember many, including neighbours, laughing at me when I took it up. They would ask me, “Why don't you try running rather than walking which looks very funny?” But I was determined to push on, so I ignored them. I come from a sports family. My elder sister, Jantel Nafula, played volleyball up to the national level. My father, Wycliffe Wafula, played football in high school in the 1980s. My family has supported my athletics career, too. My father, however, always reminded me to strike a good balance between sport and academics.

Tell us about your happiest moments as an athlete
To win gold for my country for the first time in a world event was magical. Being the first Kenyan and African to win gold in a global race walking event, I felt very happy. It was unbelievable. Coach Gabriel Otwane advised me to stay close to the first six walkers in the first half of the race, and then with the best three in the remaining 5,000 metres. He told me that I would be used as a pacemaker if I started the race in front, and that would work against me. This tactic worked. I also finished fourth at the 2022 World Athletics Race Walking Team Championships last year in Muscat, Oman where I won the prize money of Sh1.2 million. I used the money to build a house for my parents and also pay school fees for my younger brother who is in high school.

Your worst moment?
That was when I failed to finish the 20km race during the 2022 Africa Athletics Championships in Mauritius. Leg cramps forced me to withdraw along the way because of pain. I never want to remember that day.

Any personal goals you hope to achieve in racewalking?
I dream of becoming an Olympic champion one day and also to be a world record holder in the 20km race. I’m also hoping to get the national record in racewalking over the same distance. Already, I am a world champion in the junior category, and I hold the national record of 10km race walking on road.

What is your secret to success?
Patience and discipline. These two matter a lot. And, like in any other sport, focus and passion is also important for you to succeed. I attribute my success to my friends. I love them because they encourage me to work hard. I hope I can help them someday too. For a walker, you have to go for a long run every day to gain mileage and endurance.

As a racewalker, what is your diet like?
My favourite food in training is ugali and managu. I think it is the best for a racewalker. Racewalkers are told to avoid fermented milk because it interferes with the way your knees work.

Do you think education important to an athlete?
Education is key to every athlete. As a sports person, you have to know how to balance sports and education. Education is good because you don't know about tomorrow. You can get a career-ending injury, and at some point, you will have to retire from sports. It is those papers you got in class that will help you to get a job. They can also open doors for you to get a scholarship to further your studies in
 Kenya or abroad.

What do you think about doping and mursik?
I feel very bad when I hear a doping case involving a Kenyan, but, I can say that athletes in Kenya are very innocent. The doping scandals are promoted by foreign agents and managers. They encourage taking of food and recovery supplements, some of which contain prohibited substances. To avoid using supplements in our training, let's purpose to drink pure water.

Mursik (traditional fermented milk variant of the Kalenjin people), is a mixture of milk and other herbal medicines. The medicines ferment the milk fast, within a few days. Unfortunately, herbal medicine is not recommended to athletes because research has found that some herbal medicines and supplements enhance performance.
I urge Athletics Kenya to investigate and find out why athletes, including the top stars, choose to dope. Any athlete found guilty should be banned for life, even if it is me. Those who sell banned substances to athletes should also not be spared.

How did it feel to be disqualified at the 2022 World Athletics Under-20 Championships in Colombia?
It was not such a big deal. It is part of the game. It’s like in football where you can be red carded any time for breaking the rules. I went back to the drawing board after the disqualification, reviewed my training programme and tried to change my walking technique because in race walking, the technique matters a lot.

Your advice to aspiring racewalkers?
I can advise race walkers to be patient. It takes patience to get the technique right, and there is time and space for everyone. Racewalking is an endurance event. We have talent on our continent, so we can be world champions.