Geoffrey Rotich’s dedication to his younger sister Nancy Koech has helped her see a path to Paralympic glory.
Koech was born blind, but Rotich has served as her running guide and together they have won two Paralympic medals in athletics.
“Since she was young, I have always been her eyes because I went everywhere with her,” Rotich told BBC Sport Africa.
Growing up, Koech did not have it easy because, of the 11 children in her family, she was the only one born blind.
“People would gossip about me in the village and say ‘What will happen to this child when she’s an adult, how will her life be because she is blind?” Koech, 35, told the BBC.
“I would ask my mother, ‘Why did you give birth to me? I wish I wasn’t born.’ My mother’s response would be to cry.
“But as I grew older, I realised there are other blind people, and I cannot blame anyone for my condition. It was God’s will.”
Her parents tried to find medical solutions but were told Koech’s blindness could not be reversed.
While some in her village in Kenya ridiculed her, at home she was always supported.
“I told myself I would never hide my child because there are some in our culture who do hide children with disability,” Koech’s father, Johnstone, explained to the BBC.
“There were times she was bullied in the special school we took her to, but we encouraged her because I know life has its challenges.”
Once ostracised by some in her village in the south-west of Kenya, Koech is now its shining light following her success on the track.
Her father and brother both competed over 400m, so perhaps it was no surprise when she also developed a love for track and field in primary school.
She began as a sprinter, but blind para-sprinters need a guide.
Struggling to find one, she switched to compete in the long jump until Geoffrey stepped in.
“I used to run the 400m in school and when I completed my secondary school, someone approached me to be his guide and he is the one who introduced me to Paralympics,” Rotich explains.
“That is where I first learned what it takes to be a guide and when my sister completed her primary school, I told her we should work together.”
Koech was excited to work with her older brother because he “understood” her and while the two already had a familial bond, a new one was now added because runner and guide are literally tethered together.
“At home we are brother and sister but, on the track, it is a different relationship. We are more serious,” Rotich says.
“Competition rules dictate that the guide cannot run ahead of the athlete. So, when we train, we work on making sure we are in sync.”
Rotich also gives his sister instructions from the start of the race to the end.
“When we start the race, he tells me we’ve started,” Koech explains.
“Then at a bend he tells me ‘curve’. He updates me once a lap is over and what time we’ve clocked and towards the end, he tries to tells me how we are doing and if I should go faster to get a better position so this is how we usually race.”
At the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, the pair won the only Kenyan medal at the games, bronze in the 1500m T11 category, adding to their silver from the 2016 Rio Games.
“We were extremely happy with that medal because with 200m to go, we were fifth,” Rotich explained.
“I spoke to her in our local language to put in more effort so that we don’t miss out on the podium and go home empty-handed, and we finished third.”
A brother’s sacrifice
The success the pair have enjoyed on the track has made up for the personal sacrifice Rotich had to take so he could work with his sister.
He gave up a job in the military – and with it a steadier income – to compete at the highest level.
“I had received my letter to join the military but because I knew it would be difficult for her to get someone who can guide her well, I gave it up,” he says.
“The military job would have meant a more stable income, unlike being a guide which doesn’t always pay well.”
The siblings, who also boast world and regional titles, have been working under local coach Paul Kemei.
“Most of these people with disability are being ignored by people,” Kemei explained to BBC Sport Africa.
“What I am trying to do is to combine athletes – those who are able and those who are disabled – to learn skills from each other, and I have seen there is great progress.”
Koech’s success has changed her family fortunes by paying school fees for two of her siblings and investing in a tea farm.
It has also had an impact on the wider community, changing how people living with disabilities are perceived.
“Today, I am respected in the village. People who never used to say hello to me on the road now stop me to have a chat,” Koech says.
“Some have come and apologised for treating me badly in the past. They tell me they didn’t expect that I could find such success in life.”
Koech is hungry for more success, wanting a Paralympic gold medal to complete the set.
“I was hoping for a gold medal in Japan, but the hot weather affected me. I hope that in the next Paralympics (Paris 2024), I can win gold.”