In Kenya, A Shunned Young Man Becomes a Beloved, Talented Coach

Thomas Gathu was born in Kenya at a time when children with intellectual disabilities were usually shunned, hidden – or worse. Yet his family saw that he had special gifts. When Thomas found Special Olympics, those gifts became talents.

A Painful Childhood

His family tried to help him learn. But when he started his schooling, his life became a nightmare. Thomas was punished and insulted because he was slow to write and learn. He performed well below other children. Teachers did not want to try to teach him. Students made fun of him. His family also suffered from the mockery.

The head of the school eventually recommended that his parents send him away, which was hard on everyone. But soon, he found Special Olympics and whole new paths to success opened up.

Runner, Teacher, Coach

Thomas Gathu overcame problems as a child to grow up a well-loved coach and Special Olympics gold medalist.

Thomas Gathu could run – and ran fast. He’d never really tried to race before! He worked, trained and learned perseverance through Special Olympics. He gained confidence, as he perfected his new skills. Soon, other people saw what he could do – and how he could do some things even better than they could. Their prejudices about people with intellectual disabilities started to fall away.

Thomas was proof of how many hidden talents people with disabilities can have. Through Special Olympics, Thomas learned discipline, gained physical strength and even began to build leadership skills.

Now a grown man, Thomas has been able to work as a physical education teacher. He has served as a spokesman for people with intellectual disabilities, even addressing a gathering of 350,000 people in Paris. He has also become a beloved coach with Special Olympics Kenya, where the younger athletes see him as a true role model who understands what they are going through.

A Coach's Regimen

Today, he has a message to families of people with disabilities: “Do not hide your special children. They are part of us,” he says. “Denying them play, exposure and association is violating their basic human rights.”

Thomas teaches his athletes to strive for excellence – get out of the blocks fast and finish strongly. That’s because he believes most races are won off the start or with a strong finishing kick. And Thomas is out there, showing them what to do, running alongside his athletes to encourage them each step of the way. His athletes alternate days between running hills for strength and endurance and running short sprints to increase speed and explosiveness out of the blocks.

He adds weight training into the regimen, especially for the sprinters so they can use their strength to get a good start in the race. Nutrition is another key factor, especially in Kenya, so that is something else that Thomas teaches. He encourages a high intake of milk for bone strength, and foods low in fat for energy.

A New World

Thomas gives much of the credit for his success to his mother, who never gave up on him, as well as his father. “My papa always told me that to do well, you have to work hard --  because challenges will always be there.”
But he also is appreciative of the new world that Special Olympics opened up for him, giving him hope when he had so little.