Very little has gone right for Tom Matthews since he won a bronze medal at his first World Championships in 2018 but the 27 year old Welshman has remained typically positive and managed to not just survive but thrive during the past three months of lockdown.
“When we came back from the tournament in Spain at the beginning of March we went into lockdown two weeks prior to everyone else,” he said, “because we were self-isolating just in case we had caught anything out there and we didn’t want to spread it to our team-mates. I think I realised the reality of it when football was stopped – I knew then it was a bit more serious because football doesn’t really stop for anything.
“I’ve been keeping quite active during lockdown even though I haven’t been able to get to a sports centre or train so it hasn’t been too bad for me. I’ve just tried to work on my fitness – going out for pushes, trying to get some fresh air and stay safe. I’ve been lucky because Sport Wales delivered me a table quite early on and Tees Sport got me a robot so I’ve been able to train at home with my coach Neil Robinson watching me via Skype.
“Although I live alone my parents only live 10 minutes away and I’ve been able to see them and they’ve been cooking meals for me and doing my shopping and I keep in close touch with my friends so I haven’t missed out too much although obviously I’ve missed the social aspect of going out and seeing them.”
As someone who falls into the vulnerable category Matthews admits that staying safe has been a priority during the months of the pandemic.
“At first it was quite frustrating because we were supposed to be in lockdown and you could see some people were just doing what they wanted. It was like saying to someone ‘if you saw a serial killer outside would you just walk out of your house’ and of course you wouldn’t. So it was very frustrating but then I just thought ‘it is out of my power so I’m just going to stay safe for me and my family’ and that was the main priority for me.”
Maintaining his independence has also been a priority for him since he broke his neck while mountain biking when he was 16 years old.
“From the start of my accident I wanted to be independent again,” he explained, “and it was a struggle at the start. For the first two years I had a PA but he finished because he needed more money for his family which was understandable. I thought it was the right time to have a go at looking after myself and it worked out in my favour. It was a blessing in disguise that he finished and I was able to take my life by the reins again and make myself independent.”
Matthews has clear memories of the moment his life changed when he was pitched over the handlebars of his mountain bike.
“I didn’t knock myself out which was surprising as I was going at quite a pace,” he recalled, “and I remember hearing a crunch and I didn’t know what it was at the time. I was lying there trying to get back on my feet as you do and I couldn’t get up. My uncle and one of my close friends John came down the mountain afterwards and saw me lying on the track. The ambulance was called and I ended up going to Frenchay Hospital in Bristol and I knew it was serious when all my family turned up. My father never hid anything from me and when I woke up in intensive care he told me what had happened so when the doctors said I would never walk again I was quite prepared. But it’s still hard to take.
“Obviously it is going to be difficult at any age but I think it helped me to be 16, which sounds a bit mad but when you are a bit older and you maybe have a family it can be a lot harder. At 16 you haven’t got any responsibilities and you can rebuild your life a bit easier. That is what it is like with a spinal cord injury – you have to rebuild your life and adapt to being in a wheelchair and I think from that aspect being 16 helped me to change my life around quite quickly and to mature more quickly.
“I think you can go two ways – you can either go a negative way about things or you can try and stay positive and see ways out. My philosophy was the hope that I could walk again, which obviously never happened, but then I had to focus my strength on becoming independent again and I’ve managed to do that. I’m very proud of where I am and being on the British team; it’s been a rollercoaster but I’m loving my life now.”
It was while recovering in hospital that Matthews was introduced to table tennis by the former Paralympian and joint-founder of Disability Sport Wales, the late Jim Munkley MBE.
“It was all Jim’s fault,” he laughed. “I was just lying in bed in hospital and he used to come round the wards and try to get people involved in table tennis as they had a table in the hospital. He kept coming round and I kept telling him to go away as all I wanted was to get back on my bike. In the end I gave in just to shut him up really and I fell in love with it. I remember my Chinese takeaway came while I was playing and I let it go cold which I never used to in those days. He told me that you can travel with sport and he taught me everything I know. Independence-wise he showed me ways of doing things that someone who is not in a wheelchair couldn’t teach you so that really helped in my journey as well.”
Although he initially trained with the Welsh squad after leaving hospital Matthews then turned his back on the sport, a decision that he still feels was right for him.
“My mind wasn’t 100% on sport – it was more like an activity to do at that time,” he explained. “Having my accident at the age of 16 it became important to get back to normality. So I started going out with the boys and started drinking quite heavily to be honest. I just carried on doing that for about two years – going out as much as I could and just getting back into society. Then towards the end of 2012 I rang Jim up and said ‘could I give it another shot’ and he was more than willing to have me back. He could see some potential in me and I ended up going back and getting classified in 2013 and it’s been a mad rollercoaster from there really.”
Like any rollercoaster there have been ups and downs and while hopefully the best is yet to come Matthews has already made his mark on men’s class 1 with medals at World and European level.
“The Europeans in 2015, when I was still in the Pathway squad and I ended up coming home with a bronze in the singles and winning the European team title with Rob (Davies), and the World Championships in 2018 when I was 2-0 down to Falco and came back and won a bronze medal were both very surreal moments,” he said, “and I think turning points in my career when I realised I can compete with the best and win medals at major tournaments.”
Just when he appeared to be on the brink of establishing himself in the top five of the world rankings injury stopped him in his tracks last year and he endured a frustrating 2019 season that culminated in a quarter-final loss in the European Championships.
“I lost a lot of time and strength with the injury,” he said, “and that was difficult to take and more mentally challenging. I spent a lot of time with Andy Hill (BPTT team psychologist) trying to get my mentality right. It was more pressure from myself than anyone else to become better and become a top player a bit quicker and I started rushing things. The pressure that I added to myself was not needed as I was going in the right direction. I learnt a lot from that period and I think sometimes you learn more from losing than winning so I’ll come back stronger.”
Mental strength is an important element in professional sport and Matthews admits that his emotions have sometimes got the better of him in the past.
“Sometimes showing emotion (on the table) helps me,” he said, “and it is a case of channelling it in the right direction. I’ve had a lot of help from Andy trying to channel that energy in the right way. Before I used to get angry and rush things – I think that comes from my background in mountain biking in that when you fall off you get back on and go off even harder to try to make up the time you lost. That doesn’t really work in table tennis – if you try and force things you force errors. So it took a lot of time to nurture that but I think I am on the right track now and I’ve learnt a lot from my experiences of being in those situations. I’ve been analysing a lot of games during lockdown and I can see when I’m in control of myself I’m a lot better player and a lot tougher opponent.”
Mountain biking and table tennis may have little in common but both have brought out the fierce competitive instinct in Matthews.
“I think I’ve been competitive in everything I do,” he acknowledged, “and whatever I do – whether it is just trying to push my chair the fastest – I’ll always be competitive. I really enjoy table tennis and how complex the game is. I’d say it is probably the most difficult sport out there and that set me a challenge and I was up for it. I fell in love with the game for that reason.”
Matthews acknowledges that his fellow Welshmen and class 1 team mates Rob Davies and the recently retired Paul Davies have been a major part of his career and success to date as well as his coach Neil Robinson, a former Paralympic gold medallist.
“Training with Rob and Paul has helped me massively. They are my team mates but when we are on the table they are my opponents. We have a good relationship – when we are on the table we want to beat each other but off the table we are great friends. They have helped me a lot and I have to give them credit for that.
“Me and Neil have a good bond with each other. We train together most days and he is in my corner at every tournament and that really helps me because he understands how to calm me down and get me in the right mind-set. He has also spoken to Andy and knows what words and phrases work for me to calm me down. We just have a really good understanding of each other. With all of his achievements you can learn so much from people like him.”
Having missed out on the chance of selection for Rio 2016 because of a broken leg Matthews is hoping to make his Paralympic debut in Tokyo next summer.
“At first it was a dream to compete for the British team,” he said, “and then obviously you want to compete on the world stage and at the Paralympic Games which is the biggest tournament that we can do. It would be a dream and I’m hoping that dream comes true very soon.”
While the Paralympic dream is on hold Matthews’ determination has not wavered and he is looking forward to the day when he can return to the training hall.
“Even talking about it makes me smile,” he admitted, “I really can’t wait. It is going to be a bit strange with all the rules in place but just getting on a table with someone else rather than a robot – I just can’t wait. My biggest motivation throughout every stage of my life has been to stay strong and keep going. I always believe that you can come out on top. In any situation in life as long as you stay strong and believe in what you do you’ll come out on top and I think that is the biggest thing for me – if I keep persevering I’ll become a top player.”