With help of Parkites, Kenyan adaptive skier will walk for first time in 20 years
PARK CITY, Utah — When Kenyan Daniel Katheku was 5 years old, he was bitten by a snake. It nearly killed him.
“Everybody was coming to the hospital to say, ‘Oh you are going to die today, you are going to die tomorrow,’” he said. “What happened: my leg was cut. I was amputated but it saved my life.”
After his amputation, he said many in his community didn’t understand his situation, but he slowly started finding ways to demonstrate his capabilities by competing as a one-legged athlete. Since then, he has competed in high jumping, played amputee soccer, and most recently, set his sights on becoming Kenya’s first Paralympic skier.
Through a friend of a friend on Facebook, Katheku, 25, discovered the National Ability Center and eventually was able to earn support from the Kenyan government and the NAC to earn a stay in Park City. Over his stay at the NAC, which will continue until February, Katheku will hone the skiing skills he first learned through a South Korean program to introduce Paralympic athletes to skiing.
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Currently, he skis with a pair of crutches with small skis attached, called outriggers, but a chance encounter with adaptive snowboarder Noah Elliot could change the way he skis and the way he walks.
Last Sunday, when Elliot’s dinner plans fell through, he decided to go train at the NAC. There, he found Katheku sitting on the couch.
“He wasn’t able to see my prosthetic because I was wearing a pant,” Elliot said. “I asked a few questions about his leg. … And that’s when I got the answer, ‘I’ve never had a prosthetic.’”
Elliot made a call to a friend who works at Amputee Blade Runners, a nonprofit that outfits amputees with prosthetic running legs called blades. After a brief conversation, Elliot’s friend confirmed that they could get Katheku a sports leg and a running blade.
“I called him and seconds later I got a message saying, ‘We’d love to help him, we just have to find a way to get him to Tennessee,’” Elliot said. Then Helen Davies, lodge manager at the NAC, heard about the effort and contacted Bill Keever, who in the past has provided sky miles to children who need to travel for chemotherapy. Keever agreed to give Katheku the miles required to get to Tennessee.
“I’m very excited about it,” Katheku said after a day of training at the NAC’s Mountain Center. “Very happy because I’ve been walking (like this) for 20 years. I’m just waiting to see the day I will be walking. It will be like my gift of Christmas.”
Katheku has never been able to afford a prosthetic leg, which has kept him from competing at a high level in the track and field events that are popular in Kenya. He thought the novelty of skiing might get people’s attention, but he said it is incredibly difficult to find funding for a Kenyan skier.
“I had to go to the people and when I tell them I want to ski, it was like ‘Ski? I’ll think about it,’” he said. “When I called them again, they would not pick up the phone. It’s like I’m joking.”
But even after getting a new leg, changing the way Katheku walks won’t happen right away. The process for fitting a prosthetic limb can be challenging.
“There’s a transition period,” Elliot said. “When you’re on crutches for so long, not to mention 20 years, your leg, your good leg, gets to the center of your body to compensate and keep you balanced. So a big challenge is going to be learning when you have something else on the other side to keep your leg out of the center and walk side by side.”
It also presents Katheku with a choice: keep skiing one-legged, or learn to ski with two.
“Because he’s also been skiing with one leg for so long, he might not like it,” Elliot said, who lost his leg at 16 following treatment for cancer. “He might think it’s dead weight — it’s just kind of in the way. And he’s got skills on the one leg, so you don’t want to mess that up.”
A lack of funds kept Katheku from participating in the necessary events to qualify for the Paralympics this coming February, but he said he has been invited to the torch lighting ceremony to represent Kenya.
“I will go like a guest,” he said.
But for now, he is focusing on his routine. Before breakfast, he warms his leg up on the stationary bike, then does some light yoga. A little after 8 a.m., he boards a bus for Park City Mountain Resort to ski.
“The first day I was very scared, I didn’t know I could be at this level,” he said. “The snow is not easy, my place is very hot. We just have snow in the fridge.”
In mid-January, he will be fitted for his new legs. No matter how he chooses to ski, his life won’t be the same.
Katheku is raising funds to continue training through gofundme.com/kenya-to-winter-paralympics-2018.
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Herman is the freestyle skiing winner of the Summit Daily’s Peak Performers project, which honors the greatest athletes and most influential figures in Summit county ski and snowboard history.