Looking for a miracle in Leadville
August 9, 2007
BRECKENRIDGE ” Before Ibrahim Wafula entered the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race, before he rode 80 miles in less than seven hours throughout Summit County this week to train, even before he had a prosthetic right leg to help him stand up, he followed his devout Islamic faith and boarded a plane from his native Nairobi, Kenya, to San Diego last November.
He carried little with him on his journey: a suitcase full of clothes, his trusty metal crutch, the dark suit he wore to the Nairobi airport, an envelope filled with Kenyan newspaper clippings to prove who he was … and, of course, one cycling shoe and one pedal.
He had not been registered in the race ” in fact, the event was already full ” there was no one scheduled to meet him at the airport, he hadn’t arranged for a place to stay once he arrived, and he carried virtually no money.
He was not worried.
Two days prior, he’d secured a travel visa through the U.S. Embassy in Kenya at the last minute, an unheard-of timeframe for dignitaries, never mind a poor, one-legged agricultural worker who lives in a one-room apartment with his wife and two children.
Unbeknownst to Wafula, help, a.k.a. Eric Channing Brewer, was en route to San Diego about four hours ahead of him.
Brewer had learned of the dire circumstances that awaited Wafula’s arrival in California, so he flew from his home in Washington, D.C., to San Diego immediately. His mission: help his friend fulfill his.
Wafula raced in the triathlon, impressing many, as usual. It was his first race in the United States and that thrill alone might have been enough to deem the experience a success. But something else happened while he was there, something miraculous, just like so much of Wafula’s story seems to be.
During the 52-mile bike section, a fellow cyclist noticed Wafula riding with one leg and no prosthesis. The man turned out to be Elliot Weintrob, one of the nation’s leading prostheticians and, it turns out, possessor of a large heart.
Weintrob approached Wafula and Brewer after the race and learned of Wafula’s story: How he lost part of his right leg in a car accident when he was 7, how he’d taught himself to ride a bike and play soccer and run, how he had gotten so fast in the saddle that he is now a legitimate threat to able-bodied racers ” how he has magnificent dreams, but no money.
Weintrob made the two men an offer. If they got Wafula to D.C., he would make sure Wafula got a new, $25,000 prosthetic leg, free of charge ” a prospect Brewer called “music to my ears.”
Three months later, Wafula had another large chunk of his right leg amputated to accomodate the prosthesis, and this Saturday, he will test the device in competition for the first time, in one of the most famous mountain bike races in the nation.
Wafula, 27, is well aware of the opportunity Saturday’s race brings, as well as the responsibility that goes with it.
“This is my chance,” he said Wednesday during an interview in Breckenridge (he and Brewer are staying with Pam and Kevin Minard in Dillon). “I’m representing 30 million Kenyanese. Thirty million people, they look at me and what I do in Leadville.”
According to Brewer, whose extraordinary soul we will get to in a moment, Wafula is not exaggerating. He is known, and revered, throughout Kenya ” the equivalent, you could argue, of a lettuce farmer being a national hero in this country.
“Lance Armstrong could ride down the street here and you wouldn’t recognize him if he wasn’t in yellow and on his bike,” said Brewer, who also is competing Saturday. “But when you see a guy with one leg riding down the street in Nairobi, everybody knows who he is.”
This was not always the case. When Wafula was young, he crutched around trying to keep up with the other children, until eventually they hurried off to play sports. Every time they did, however, one of the kids would leave his bicycle with Wafula, asking the one-legged boy to babysit it.
For two months Wafula obliged. Then one day it all made sense: instead of sitting next to it all afternoon, he would learn to ride the bike.
His friends scoffed.
“They said, no, no, no, Wafula, you can’t ride it,” he recalled.
“I take one month to learn. After that, there was no giving bike for watching.”
He took an old frame that had sat in the family home for years and began building it into a rideable machine. For half a year, each time he had enough money to buy a part, he did.
One of the final parts to be added, believe it or not, was the brakes. To compensate for their absence Wafula would drag his good leg on the rear tire to stop himself, until one day the strategy backfired, big time.
He failed to slow himself during a screaming downhill section and crashed so hard that he fractured the femur in his amputated leg. He was 15. Within a month he was riding his bike again, this time without brakes.
Wafula rode and rode, day after day, month after month, year after year ” escaping his disability like never before.
And when he happened upon a cycling race on TV, he decided he, too, would race his bike someday. So in 1997, he did, taking 20th overall out of 130 cyclists in a Kenyan road race. He amazed so many that he was given 7,000 schillings by strangers, the equivalent of about $100, and enough to buy a new bike.
Five years later, he won his first mountain bike race on a single-geared cycle with no shocks and skinny tires, outlasting the field on a course so technical he said it makes Leadville’s grueling fire roads seem easy.
A man walked up to Wafula after the race and offered him 10,000 schillings for winning. Wafula declined, saying he’d rather have a job so he could feed his family, and the man obliged, hiring him as a seed specialist, a job Wafula held for four years until deciding to pursue cycling as more than just a hobby.
This is where Brewer comes in. A foreign-service friend of his had been living in Kenya for years, and finally, in March 2006, Brewer decided to go visit. While there his friend, who had met Wafula while running on the side of a road, arranged a meeting between the two avid cyclists. Wafula quickly convinced Brewer to join him on a 200-mile tour from Nairobi to Arusha, Tanzania.
Much to Brewer’s surprise, Wafula was significantly stronger than he on the steep road to Arusha, and in pursuing the one-legged man Brewer eventually grew so disheveled and weak that he turned to the Lord for help.
“I had to start praying,” he said. “I said, ‘God, you gotta get me through this. If you get me to Arusha, I’ll be in your service.’ That was the deal I made with God.”
Upon returning from the trip, Brewer, 37, decided he’d found the purpose he’d been seeking. It was named Ibrahim Wafula.
He quit his $70,000-a-year job in D.C. and started a video production business, aiming to help Wafula get the exposure in America he so desperately yearned for. (Wafula’s goals, by the way, range from building a sports center in Kenya to meeting Oprah Winfrey.)
The process was accelerated when Wafula decided on a whim to travel to San Diego, but Brewer, true to his word, has not balked. Since November he’s poured $40,000 of his life savings toward helping his Kenyan friend, basically draining his bank account. This includes monthly $300 checks he sends to Wafula’s wife and two children, son Hatimu, 12, and daughter Saluwa, 6, so the family can pay rent and so that Saluwa can afford to attend school.
“I’m broke,” Brewer said, lowering his head and wiping away tears. “But it’s one of those things, you just don’t stop doing it.”
He launched a website in January, http://www.iwafula.com, to help raise funds, but thus far it has brought in less than $1,000, leaving an uncertain future. When asked if he has come to Colorado hoping for a miracle, Brewer conceded without hesitation. “Yeah. Ibrahim has been blessed with what people call miracles since he was a kid.”
And so Wafula The Believer will line up once more early Saturday morning, not a care in the world except to ride like he knows he can. He is shooting to finish between eight and nine hours, a time that would surely put him in the elite portion of the field.
He comes from a land where runners are kings and bikers are peasants, where virtually every sponsorship dollar is devoted to building the next marathon star. He needs a sponsor more than anything in the world, someone to help his family survive, someone to deliver hope.
And yet all he can say is, “Bicycle is friendship. That is why I am here.”
Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-4633, or at email@example.com.