NAIROBI, Kenya, Aug 6 – A gentle knock on his bedroom door in the wee hours of the morning on May 15 2011, woke Wilfred Bungei up just as he was recovering having spent the better part of the day in hospital after drowning in way too many gulps of vodka.
It was his adopted son. The message he carried of heart-wrenching proportion was passed down to him. His friend and colleague Samuel Wanjiru was dead.
“I was shocked. I woke up and cried my heart out and I think I cried for the whole day. He was a very young person and that day, I felt it was supposed to be me dead; not Sammy,” Bungei says in a heart-to-heart interview with Capital Sports.
For him, this was not only a heartbreaking episode, but a wake-up call; literally.
A friendship that had blossomed way before they both won Olympic titles in Beijing in 2008 had wrapped up in the blink of an eye.
The Olympic marathon champion had died from head injuries after allegedly falling off the balcony of his Nyahururu home and according to autopsy reports, there was some considerable amount of alcohol in his system.
At that time, Bungei was a full-fledged alcoholic, gulping heavy pints of his favorite vodka without limits and severally also shared a drink or two with Wanjiru.
The young marathoner’s death stunned his mind.
Earlier the previous day, he had to be taken to hospital after losing consciousness following a continuous mid-morning to afternoon drinking marathon. In hospital, they had to drown him in three packs of drip to wake him up.
Was alcohol going to lead him to the grave, probably much same it had done to his bosom buddy Wanjiru? His head spun and he thought it was about time he changed his ways.
Bungei tried to mend his path all through the following months, taking a few steps forward and many back but it had to take another major episode in his life for him to decide enough was enough. He missed the birth of his third child in Eldoret.
“My wife asked me whether I could be there for the birth of our child since for the first two, I was not present due to my athletics commitments. I said why not, I would be happy to see the process,” explains Bungei.
“I told myself that I wouldn’t be courageous enough to watch everything so I thought taking a few sips of alcohol would make me calm. All through the journey while I drove her to hospital, I was sipping my drink. I continued when we reached and I could occasionally go to the car, take a sip and come back to check on her,” he adds.
After almost two hours, Bungei finished the 750ml bottle of vodka that was in his car and he decided to go to a shopping centre nearby and get another bottle as he knew he faced a long night ahead waiting for his wife to deliver.
But he was never to come back.
In the wee hours of the morning, his car was found to have swerved into a ditch with the lone driver, Bungei, unconscious inside and his body cold as ice.
“They thought I was dead when they found me there. My body was very cold because I had rolled down all the windows and I had no pulse. I was quickly rushed to hospital by my friends, coincidentally, the same hospital my wife was in,” narrates Bungei.
He was wheeled in to the health facility where doctors quickly worked to stabilize his condition, his wife who had to undergo a caesarian section to give birth was just getting out of theatre at around 6am, a few minutes after he was rushed in.
“The nurses were talking and they were saying how Wilfred Bungei was brought to the hospital unconscious. That’s how my wife learnt that I was admitted. Imagine coming out of theatre only to hear that your husband has been brought in unconscious!” Bungei further posed.
At around 3pm, he finally regained consciousness and couldn’t remember a thing of what happened or how he found himself on a hospital bed. He was so disenfranchised that he tried to pull away all the tubes he had on his body to try and keep him stable and had to be restrained by friends.
For him, it was shameful and he decided enough is enough. “It was a dramatic scene. One that will be a constant reminder of why I should never go back to alcohol,” Bungei says.
With the help of his family, Bungei checked into a rehabilitation centre in Nairobi to help cut down his alcoholism. September will mark nine years since he last sipped from the bottle.
“I started with one bottle, then went to two and before I knew it, I was having one too many. I went into alcohol because suddenly I had so much time in my hands. For all the 15 years that I was involved in athletics, I completely lived the life of an athlete. But now after retirement, there is nothing much to do,” Bungei explains.
Going into rehab was a decision he says he will never regret.
“Right now I cannot stand alcohol. I don’t even use alcohol-based perfume. Even the food that is usually marinated in alcohol, I cannot touch,” he says.
After leaving rehab, Bungei took it upon himself to share his story and ensure that someone somewhere, especially a sportsman does not fall to the same trap he fell in.
Wanjiru’s death still pained and for him, he wasn’t supposed to be dead. Again, no one else should die.
“When I got sober, I realized that I cannot hide and say I don’t have flaws and that’s why I decided to get out and tell my story. Most people asked me why I was doing it since it was equal to tarnishing my name but for me it is not about tarnishing my name but telling my story to help someone else going through the same,” explains Bungei.
He adds; “Sammy lacked someone to help him deal with everything that was going on for him and for me I think I was lucky because I had family around me and they had a huge influence. I think if it were not for them I wouldn’t be alive right now,”
“We were with him (Wanjiru) in London and I saw there was a problem. I wasn’t an alcoholic then but then immediately I started being one, I understood where the problem was. We were not supposed to lose Sammy and we cannot afford to lose any other athlete,” adds Bungei.
He now says he is working with several athletes who are undergoing similar problems and he is always reached out to whenever there is such a case. This, is something he says he is happy to do always.
Bungei who has his own personal business ventures has his life in order and is currently in the construction industry as a contractor working with a tea firm.
Also, he plans to have a second shot at the Emgwen Parliamentary seat in 2022, having lost as an independent candidate on his maiden attempt in 2017.
“I am never motivated by money or the tag mheshimiwa. I am not looking for this seat for myself but for the people. There are so many things you can do when you have a political office and that is a motivation for me,” Bungei further notes.
He looks back at time, his struggles and wins, and believes he has a bigger and better call: service to mankind.