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April 16, 2012
The Mercurial Life and Mysterious Death of Sammy Wanjiru
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April 16, 2012

To Run In Kenya, To Run In The World

The Mercurial Life and Mysterious Death of Sammy Wanjiru

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Many of the top Kalenjin athletes now move to Nairobi, where their wealth stands out less. John Ngugi, the greatest Kikuyu runner of all—gold medalist in the 1988 Olympic 5,000 meters and a five-time world cross-country champion—thinks the Kikuyu should follow suit. "If somebody comes with a new car in Nyahururu," Ngugi says, "the whole town knows." Ngugi estimates that he earned $300,000 in his running career. He used it to build a house and a grocery store near Nyahururu that were robbed four times in two years.

Consider that a typical Nyahururu household, one that owns a few head of cattle and grows maize or potatoes, might make $1,000 in a year. And consider that Wanjiru earned up to $10 million, according to his lawyer, not only in prize money but also from endorsements with Nike and a Japanese dietary supplement line. In relative terms there might never have been a more dramatic rags-to-riches ascent in sports than Sammy Wanjiru's.

There were multiple robbery attempts on Wanjiru's house in Nyahururu. Francis Kamau says that armed thieves once stopped Wanjiru's car and held him until the police came and killed one of the assailants. Ibrahim Kinuthia, a former international runner and coach who worked with Wanjiru, says that some people thought Wanjiru's Olympic medal was made of solid gold. "Nyahururu is good for training," Ngugi says, "but not good for staying."

In 2009, Wanjiru set course records in both the London (2:05:10) and Chicago (2:05:41) marathons. He also started dating Mary Wacera, a runner he met at the Nyahururu track.

They could talk to each other about Beijing, where Wacera won bronze in the 5,000 meters at the '06 world junior championships. She and Wanjiru started going to and from training together, and he didn't mind occasionally slowing the pace of a recovery run so they could run together and talk.

As a promising athlete, Wacera never felt the need to ask Wanjiru for money, which endeared her to Wanjiru's mother. Wacera also did not complain about Wanjiru's late nights out, which his friends say often included other women.

In December 2009, Wacera and Wanjiru were married. There was an actual ceremony, which Wanjiru had not had with Terezah Njeri, who by that time had borne Wanjiru two children. (Having more than one wife is traditional in Kenya, albeit increasingly rare.) "I had no problem with [Njeri]," Wacera says, "but she hated me so much." (Njeri has talked to media outlets but did not answer repeated calls from SI.) Wanjiru rented a house for Wacera right between the homes of his mother and Njeri, on that same dirt road.

But his money supply soon began to dwindle. Mwangi, the veterinarian, was with Wanjiru once when Njeri showed up and dressed down her husband in front of his friends for not giving her more money for the children. "How can I live like this?" Mwangi recalls Wanjiru saying.

To allay Njeri's complaints, Wanjiru had Mwangi help her open a pharmacy in the center of Nyahururu. The royal blue metal doors of Njewan Chemist opened for business in March 2010. But, Mwangi says, Njeri failed to replenish the drugs, and the doors closed by December.

Even when he escaped the bickering women, Wanjiru could not find solitude. Ngatia, his physiotherapist, recalls that by 2010 the runner was never alone, even during treatment sessions. "There were always cousins or friends around," Ngatia says, people who lived off Wanjiru. His benders expanded to include the daytime. He would push tables together at the Jimrock club in town and lose himself in the Kikuyu pop music. He was once so swarmed at a bar that Kinuthia tried to swat people away by telling them that Sammy was no longer buying. But Sammy was always buying. In one stupor he bought a Range Rover from a fair-weather friend for $145,000, nearly a 100% markup.

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