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Racing despite disability

NAIROBI, Kenya, August 11- The mention of speed thrills him; the art of navigating was inborn. He can’t walk but he can drive, and drive really fast.SAM_JETHWA_MIC_15 years ago Sam Jethwa was a handful of a teenager. Like any other teen his age, he lived in the moment, until the day a car he was travelling in rolled. The car which was being driven by one of his elder brothers then hit a tree.

In the accident Jethwa then broke his spine and ribs completely paralyzing him from his spine downwards. That was the last day Jethwa’s feet ever touched the ground, he ended up in hospital for six months at Stoke Mandeville in the United Kingdom for rehabilitation and physiotherapy.

Undeterred by his love for speed and rally thrills, Jethwa is now a renowned Two Wheel Rally driver.

At the service centre, the licensed zone for serious work and no jokes in rallying, I met many drivers and servicemen. As I went about my duty of covering Safari rallies in my career, I have had many first ones but this was in the deep end.  I was lucky to have brushed shoulders with the Great of Safari Rally drivers, hours before Baldev Chager had rolled right in front of my face, Lee Rose had given me a heads-up and I was in constant communication with Surinder Thatti and greats like Achie Khan. But in all the Greats, I met Sam Jethwa.

Sipping cold bottled water in the scorching heat of Meru, a very confusing climate, cold and hot at the same time, we quickly hit-it-off with Jethwa. He was an avid listener of our Saturday, Entertainment and Sports radio show. We quickly arranged a sit-down.     

“I hate being driven,” that’s the first thing Jethwa said to me as we sat for an interview at the Capital FM studios in Nairobi.   

 “I love driving. I have to have proof of how good the driver is before we jump in the car. To be perfectly honest, given the opportunity I would love to be driving more often,” he says.

To anyone, driving at 140 kilometres per hour cannot be a funny experience; it’s a different kind adrenaline that is only ignited by a rallying spirit, the only exemption is of course Kenya’s ‘matatu’ drivers.

Mr Jethwa and his close pal and former navigator  Tim Challen began rallying immediately after finishing campus where they took on a Peugeot 504 built at home and entered it to the race.

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The two graduates with no money but lots of passion jumped into the deep end of the sport braving all the hustles of getting sponsorship and all that is involved in rallying. There was another problem; officials were worried about Jethwa’s safety.

So another hurdle in his path; Jethwa had to prove he could pull this off.

SAM_JETHWA_DUST_“Surinder was rightly concerned about my safety because of my disability, so I had to prove how I would manoeuver the roll cage, and the bucket seat,” an enthusiastic Jethwa told me.
Finally in 2003 Jethwa decided to take his 504 Peugeot and enter it into the Classic category. With his unique car built specially for him, he for the first time drove it on the material day of the rally.  

Started first and finished last, and given all the day’s problems that’s a good result he tells me with a cheeky smile. Certainly no one would disapprove him given his condition.

This season Jethwa and his co- driver Munir Khan have snapped up second and third position on the table a sign which Jethwa says is encouraging given they don’t have a sponsor.

With their first full season, Jethwa and Munir are setting their sights on the top prize.

There are extra-ordinary sports men and women among us. They wow us with their natural born or acquired skills. But only once so often do people like Sam Jethwa show up in the sports world, and they bring inspiration over and above great athleticism.

“Rallying is one of the few sports that will put you on a level playing field with able bodied people. I can’t play rugby or football, but in this game I can compete and win against anyone really,” he says.     

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