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Torchbearer with a heart of gold

(A shortened version of this article was published in the Trinidad Guardian on August 12, 2012. Also published by Caribbean Trakker magazine on August 13, 2012.)

Before a race was run or before any of our athletes even walked into the stadium, Trinidad and Tobago already had its first Olympic winner at London 2012.
Trinidadian Wendell Raphael was one of 8,000 inspirational people selected to carry the Olympic torch around Great Britain. He was also one of the extras in the Opening Ceremony, playing the part of a West Indian immigrant arriving in London on the HMS Windrush in the 1950s.
But by then, one might say, 40-year-old Raphael had already won gold. On April 1, with 20,000 people looking on at the Olympic Stadium, he proposed to his girlfriend Bindi Bhambra, a schoolteacher from Bristol. To loud cheers, she said yes, as her smiling face was beamed onto the massive stadium screens.
“That was a truly special moment,”says Wendell, who left Trinidad for London in 1996. “We’d been dating only for a few months, but very early on we both knew we wanted to get married, so why wait?”
Why wait…? That has become something of a theme for Wendell ever since he donated a kidney to an ailing friend in 2007. “My principle after donating a kidney was to try everything, so when London won the Olympics I signed up right away. I was really excited to be selected for the Opening Ceremony and, as a Trinidadian, it was a particularly proud moment to play a part in the Windrush segment, recognising the role West Indians played in the development of this country.”
As he speaks, a huge cheer goes up as Trinidad and Tobago’s 200m finalist Semoy Hackett appears on the screen behind him in the Trinidad and Tobago Cultural Village being staged here in London. Raph, as he is affectionately known, joins boisterously in cheering her on.
“We’re doing well. We’ll definitely win a few medals in London,” he comments. He grins as he recalls running on the Olympic Stadium track dressed as a superhero for the Gold Challenge, the UK’s first sport-based charity. Leading a team of living donors people who donate organs, blood and bone marrow while still alive – he completed this year a Gold Challenge goal of completing 2012 kilometres by the start of the London Olympics.

It was his involvement in this sort of charity work, particularly with the African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust (ACLT), that led to his nomination as an Olympic torchbearer by the ACLT. He carried the torch in Hackney, east London on July 22 after receiving it from Japan's 1988 Olympic gold medallist, swimmer Daichi Suzuki. “It was an unbelievable moment. Me? All those people cheering? It was really something… very inspiring!”
While recovering from his transplant operation, he also set up his own charity website Minus1Kidney and is well-known in some parts of London for carrying around a toy “Thor” hammer emblazoned with his website address as well as logos for the ACLT, the Anthony Nolan Trust and Kidney Research UK.
“I carry this everywhere with me. People give me funny looks, but it’s a good way to break the ice and start conversations with people about the importance of blood, bone marrow and organ donation.” His message: Get more from life, by giving the gift of life.
“When I decided to become a kidney donor, I had normal fears about what it might mean for my own health, but you don’t give up on your friends,” he says almost nonchalantly as he tucks into a roti . “The tests I underwent before I could become a donor revealed just how healthy I actually was and yet, I wasn’t really doing anything with that. So I decided that I would do something every year to celebrate our continued good health.”
One of the things that spurred him on, he says, was the reaction he often got when he told people he’d donated a kidney. “It was like ‘Oh, you have one kidney… What CAN’T you do?’” That changed, he says, when he also started mentioning that he’d since done a tandem skydive and run the 2010 London Marathon. “I wanted to encourage people. I didn’t think it was my place to go around telling anyone to become an organ donor, but I felt that if I could demonstrate that it was possible to do it and still live a normal life, it might help some people come forward.”
For Raphael, the last few months have been beyond his wildest dreams. He still has a role as a volunteer at the Paralympics to look forward to, but for this unassuming Trini from Belmont, his greatest moment was that day in April at the Olympic Stadium. “I did it mainly because I wanted to thank Bindi publicly, in front of all those people, for all the support she’s given me. And when she said, ‘Yes’, well… that was better than any gold medal!”