The Miracle in Venezuela – Benson Gicharu’s Journey to Rio Olympics

As his career in boxing soared, Benson Gicharu always knew he wanted to end it where it all started. His last fight would be in Fuata Nyayo, where he had his first decades earlier in front of those that best knew his journey and were his biggest supporters.

“Someone tried to clean up the ring; I told them not to.” he reflects while sitting at the rooftop at Mukuru Arts Club Studio in South B.

He was referring to his last fight as a professional boxer. Not the glitz and glamour that you’d expect from a fighter of his calibre but then, if you know Gicharu, this would be exactly what he would do. He had planned to acquire a standard ring for the fight but reminiscent of his journey throughout a stellar career, those plans didn’t materialize for one reason or the other. He improvised. He always did.

They set up a makeshift ring on a bare patch in an open field in Fuata Nyayo. They put rope around it to keep the fighters in and what would definitely be a raucous crowd out. He said he would fight barefoot to show the kids of Mukuru that you can start with the bare minimum and still get to the heights that he did, if only you work hard for it. A volunteer fearing for the soles of his feet and, maybe due to the esteem they held and still hold him in, got a broom and started to sweep the rocks and other debris from the ring. Gicharu stopped him.

He donned a sleeveless vest, a special one (known only to him) and stood in the blue corner, waiting for the ring announcer’s introduction of ‘Mabeli’ the fighter one last time.

This was the final curtain on a career two decades in the making, there however was a start.

Benson Gicharu was born in the slums of Fuata Nyayo, Mukuru in Nairobi. The first born in a family of three children, Gicharu played to the stereotype of the typical slum boy, rebellious to a fault. Maybe this was a coping mechanism against bouts of crippling low self-esteem that he had from a young age. He lowers his voice and becomes pensive as he recounts, “When I was 11, I tried to hang myself. I was lucky that I hadn’t closed the door and they came in and found me!”

He swapped the noose for another kind of rope, the skipping kind and by a stroke of luck found himself in a boxing gym. He lost his first ever fight and sat at his corner, totally dejected. That’s when something changed. Someone had been watching his fight and came over and put an encouraging hand on his debutant rookie shoulder. It was Bernard Gumba, who was an experienced fighter and Olympian who trained at the gym. “That was the first time anyone had ever encouraged me, even after I didn’t win. He said he liked how I fought and if I came back to the gym, he would give me a tracksuit!” And come back he did, every evening after school.

At 13, his father, Gicharu says he probably saw his death coming, moved him and his siblings to St. Catherine Primary School where they wouldn’t pay any fees and got meals courtesy of the Catholic institution. Everyone hated the sugarless morning porridge but it would be a financial burden off his parents. His father didn’t last the year and in his early teens, Gicharu was the man of the house. He has spoken about this incident many a times but its gravity as a defining crossroads in his career and life is momentous. Gicharu came into their house one morning, they hadn’t eaten the previous night and the look and tears on his mother’s face meant there would be no breakfast either. Tears burning his eyes, struggling to swallow the lump in his throat, Gicharu walked out of the door. Outside, he looked at the back of his hands. The knuckles weren’t scarred from the brutality of boxing yet but he told himself, ‘These hands, these hands are going to get us out of the ghetto.’

Gicharu had many occasions where he would have been justified to throw his hands up, let his guard down and give up. He trudged on. Barely a year after the death of his father, his mother was involved in a car crash that left her bedridden for a stretch of time. And fate did kick him while he was up, momentarily so. Gicharu was a brilliant student. He came second in his year’s KCPE lot at St. Catherine’s and as had been the norm, he had the guarantee that his high school fees would be catered for by the nuns at the school in totality. When he walked into the Headteacher’s office, however, he was told that this would not be the case. He found out the third ranked student was having their fees paid and so was the fourth student who was a good arts student. He asked why this was the case and was told that because he hadn’t started school at St. Catherine, he wouldn’t be a beneficiary of the scheme. He dropped his face and went home where his mother from her sick bed said, “People will give up on you, even those that you know!” Gicharu took this to heart and chose to cast his lot with a higher power. Something he hasn’t always succeeded at.

Gicharu is a man of great faith. The Kenya Police Corporal and a former member of the force’s Chafua Chafua boxing team always has a positive outlook on life. In retrospect, he says, “I thank God that St. Catherine’s didn’t pay my school fees. I thank God things worked out the way they did. Pressed further, he explains that, had the school taken him to high school which would most likely had been a boarding school, then his career in boxing would have been knocked down before it even got on the road. With the disappointment of St. Catherine’s behind him, his invalid mother promised to take him to high school after a year, once she had recovered and could get back to work. True to her word, Gicharu was admitted to Form One the infamous Devonshire High School a year later than his classmates.

He lives for others, does Gicharu. After pondering a question, he reveals that he probably worked hard in school for his mother’s sake. His passion was in the ring. In Form Two, an opportunity to fight for and in the Gulf came up and Gicharu took it up. He was in Qatar for six months around the same time that Dennis Oliech was being courted by the Qataris to change his citizenship and boot up for them. Gicharu had a change of heart and told his fellow boxers he would be coming back home and left the Gulf for good.

***

Leading up to the Rio Olympic Qualifiers in 2016, Gicharu was a seasoned boxer, having shed tears, blood and bucket-fulls of sweat in the ring for his country. He had represented Kenya in the London Olympics in 2012, been to Delhi in 2010 for the Commonwealth Games as well as several All African Games where he had garnered silver and bronze medals.

In camp, Gicharu and his teammate and friend, Rayton Okwiri had been touted as the best prospects for Qualification leading up to the event in Yaounde, Cameroon in March of 2016. Gicharu was in super confident mode, perhaps overconfident. He was ranked first which to him was a huge nod from AIBA, the International Boxing Association that he was expected to come through in Yaounde at the first time of asking. He booked his ticket to the second round on the back of a Bye. He waited. The winner of the bout between Bakana Kombo (Congo Brazaville) and Emmanuel Ngoma (Zambia) would get the honour of feeling his power in the second round. So confident was he in a win that he didn’t bother to watch them fight. Ngoma would be the unlucky customer. He remembers telling his coach, “I’ve never lost to anyone in that region!” He wouldn’t be starting then. Big mistake!

The top seed was out in the second round of the African Qualification Event in his Bantam 56-kilogram category and would have to look to a tougher World Qualifying Event in Baku later in the year for a chance to squeeze into Rio. Gicharu had reacquainted himself with God and become a born again Christian in early 2016 and as he sent his gratitude on high even after the loss, he prepared himself for a long flight back home to regroup and re-strategize. He says for the duration of their stay in Francophone Cameroon, he would have Bible study with his team every evening and even asked his wife to join him in a 5 day fast on his return to Kenya.

He would have just over two months to prepare for another bite at the cherry, this time in a tougher event in Baku, Azerbaijan in June. Gicharu had changed his training regimen and was training on his own when the team arrived in Baku, which brought some tension into camp. When the draw was done, he was ranked 4th and believe it or not, he would be facing the old enemy from Yaounde, the Zambian Emmnauel Ngoma – if he won his first round bout. Ngoma won. In the 2,200 seater Sarhadchi Arena, Gicharu allayed his coach’s fears with a 3-0 demolition of Ngoma to move into the Round of 16 where Ecuador’s Segundi David Padilla Bennet lay in wait. He went through Bennet without losing a round and now stood one win away from a spot on the plane to Rio. In his Quarterfinal match, Gicharu would face Cuban sensation Robeisy Ramirez. He fought his heart out but in a controversial decision, Ramirez was awarded the fight, unanimously. Boos and jeers filled the Arena. “My team and I thought I had won the fight, even some fighters from South America told me I’d definitely won the last two rounds!” Gicharu recounts.

In the changing room, it was his turn to console his team as one of his friends broke down in tears over the apparent blatant robbery. There was, however, a silver lining. If Ramirez won his semi-final bout, Gicharu would still qualify for Rio. This fight he couldn’t watch either but for different reasons – nerves. Nothing has ever come easy for Gicharu. Ramirez lost, meaning Gicharu would have the unenviable task of trying for Rio again a third time.

The only problem with the last chance Gicharu had to book his place in Rio was the small matter that the event would be in five days from the end of the Baku chapter and that it would be all the way in Vargas, Venezuela. Gicharu had neither ticket nor visa to Venezuela but as his faith teaches, he continued to train as others went shopping.

Back home, his coach David Munuhe was working hard to convince government to pay for Gicharu’s ticket to South America but came up empty. Gicharu recalls the responses he’d received. “At the Ministry, someone asked what chance I would have this time if I had previously failed to qualify twice!” He holds no grudges as he says these challenges are what forges gold into the shiny metal that is the eventual product, what we see.

Gicharu believes in miracles and miraculously, two days before he was scheduled to fight, he got his ticket to Venezuela. The only problem was that he still had no visa and no chance of traveling. He was going to watch his dream go up in flames. He packed his bags anyway and headed to the airport. Munuhe was in tow if as expected he was turned back, then he would have a ride home.

At Immigration, it was confirmed that there was no way he would be able to travel. He sat in the terminal for half an hour before giving it a final go. He recounts: “I went to the Immigration desk and told the official who was holding my passport, ‘My name is Benson Gicharu, you can Google me, this is the last chance I have at qualifying for the Olympics!’” They did just that but assured him that even if they did let him through, he wouldn’t get past France. It was a chance he was willing to take. Running through the terminal, he was the last to board, he made a frantic call to his wife, “Babe, I’m going to qualify!” and then hung up. As he caught his breath in the plane, he remembered Coach Munuhe was still waiting outside the airport. He also called him. Munuhe left overjoyed. Gicharu then sat back for the eight and a half hour journey to France and whatever it was the French would have to say to him, the prospect of being deported back home looming large.

In Paris, Gicharu held on to his carry-on luggage, a bag which contained his two uniforms – red and blue, gloves, mouth-guards, shoes and a record book of his fights. As in Nairobi, he waited for his fate to be decided only this time with the added problem of a language barrier. The French authorities flipped through his passport. He held his breath. One of the officials turned and smiled at him. He started to shadow box and Gicharu knew then that he would in a few hours be taxiing on the tarmac in Caracas.

The same scene replayed itself at the airport in Caracas – dejavu for a third time. Gicharu presented his travel documents which included the invite letter from the boxing authorities and after much haggling, he was given the go ahead. Now his only problem was to get himself to the hotel. He spotted a group of men dressed in AIBA attire and hitched a ride in their taxi. At the hotel reception in Vargas, he was informed that his name wasn’t on the list of guests expected.  Exasperation!

He met up with two old friends from his days in the Gulf, Coach Carlos and a fellow fighter

Thulasi Tharumalingam who put him up in their room for two days. His story of triumph against all odds had spread like a wild fire. An older lady had even taken on the mantle of his mother in Venezuela. The Minister of Sport also heard of his predicament and finally organised for him to get a room. When he put his bags down in his own room, he fell to his knees on the carpet and shed tears for a good fifteen minutes, his face in the mattress.

Despite all his woes, he still had to get ready for the fight. He had previously gotten in contact with the organizers to schedule his fight for a later date than was scheduled because of his erratic travel plans. On the morning of his fight, he felt uncharacteristically lethargic, probably from overtraining in an attempt to make the desired weight, coupled with jetlag and the stresses of his journey. He recalls that he sent a prayer up for God to carry him through.

In a draw of seven men, Gicharu’s first hurdle would be Italian Riccardo D’Andrea who he had little problems with. After three rounds, he won a unanimous decision. His next fighter would be a bout against home favourite and top seed Victor Rodriguez. This would be the deciding fight, one he had chased from Yaounde, to Baku and now thousands of miles away from home in Spanish speaking South America. Given the biased decisions prone to boxing which he had himself suffered himself severally, Gicharu would be taking no prisoners. He came at Rodriguez with everything he had. He even chased him across the ring when Rodriguez tried to catch his breath.

After three rounds of boxing, the decision was never in question and Gicharu was crowned the winner! He had finally achieved his dream of a second Olympics appearance. As the referee hoisted his hand into the lights, he pointed a finger on his other wrapped hand to the heavens. You would expect him to be overcome with emotions but he was the picture of calm. Asked why that was so, he gave it a lot of thought. “I’ve never thought about it but now that you ask…” He ponders some more. Finally he responds, “I believe every success has to have an expiry date and the earlier it expires, the better. This way, it helps you to forge ahead!”

Having earned his qualification to Rio, Gicharu still had a final to think about. He would face Hector Luis Garcia Mora of the Dominican Republic for the chance to win gold.

Mora never showed up for the fight and Gicharu was handed the gold medal as he jokes on a ‘silver platter.’ The Kenyan national anthem played under the lights in Vargas and in South America, with no coach or cut-man at his corner, Gicharu took his spot atop a podium, on top of the world, his ticket – and visa – to the Rio Olympic Games booked.

These days, Gicharu has transitioned into art and is winning in that as well, he is a Manjano Art Exhibition winner. He however cannot step away from his first love and will be found imparting his skill to the youngsters at the Mukuru Fight for Life Club. Despite all that life has thrown his way; he has suffered several injuries, one still evident on his right wrist, facial palsy and a catastrophic business venture that threatened to put him on his knees, Gicharu chooses a positive outlook on life with his faith as his guiding light. He says he wouldn’t change a single one of the experiences that have led him to where he is today. “I don’t want to test God but if I lost everything I have today, I know it will not break my faith!”, he says with an undoubted conviction evident of the fighter that he still is.

As he continues to give back to his community with his work as a coach and artist, Gicharu retains a monk-ish sense of humility. He lives a humble life and doesn’t covet the higher trappings. He, however, regards the blue vest that he wore in his last fight, bare-foot in Fuata Nyayo as a lucky charm. After all, he was wearing it when he qualified for the London Olympics and more crucially and brutally – for Rio.

By JM Rogoi