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Grassroots to Glory - Tom Matthews

"Realistically, it's my first Games and I want to enjoy the experience. If that ends up with a medal, I'd be more than happy but I'll be happy as long as I enjoy it.”

Tom Matthews, table tennis player, competing.
By ©British Paralympic Table Tennis

Tom Matthews battled back from having his Paralympic dream dashed by a hen do to secure his place at Tokyo 2020.

On course for Rio 2016, the table tennis star was heading for a nightclub in Cardiff when he was accosted for a photo by a blushing bride on a hen do. She sat on his lap, causing him to fall out of his wheelchair, breaking his femur and immediately sending his stomach into spasms. The photo? No-one knows.

"I had to tell the boys I needed to go home early," said the Welshman.

"Because I can't feel my legs, I didn't really feel it and I didn't know my leg was broken, but I knew something was wrong. She probably had a good night after that and I'm not sure she will have remembered it to be honest!"

The freak accident deserves its place alongside David Batty's toddler riding over his foot on a tricycle and Carl Frampton slipping in the shower in the pantheon of bizarre sporting injuries.

Coach Neil Robinson said: "Tom was making great strides at that time and he only missed out on qualification by a single place, he got so close. It was devastating for him and very difficult to get over. He's used all of that as motivation in this Tokyo cycle to make sure he's over the line."

Tom, who describes himself as 'friendly, determined and positive', has needed all three of those qualities in abundance to get where he is today - Tokyo 2020.

Portrait of the table tenis player Tom Matthews.
By ©British Paralympic Table Tennis

Born in Aberdare in Cynon Valley, he was fixated on racing motocross as a youngster. That was too much for the blood of parents David and Mandy, who settled for allowing him to take on the daring leaps and big bumps of BMX downhill.

"I'm a bit of an adrenalin junkie to be honest," said Tom, who is one of over 1,000 athletes to benefit from National Lottery funding, allowing him to train full time and access world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams.

Aged 16 in March 2009, he was rushing through the final downhill run of the day and organisers were packing up the kit and the course. On one of the final jumps, Matthews' back wheel caught the landing, kicking him over the handlebars. He broke his neck, leaving him paralysed and wheelchair-bound for life.

"It was a big journey, a life-changing injury," he said.

"It took me two years to accept it. You're finding your feet at 16 and I kept thinking, I'm 16, I'm going to get back on my bike. As time went on I had to process it."

"I was lucky because my Dad was really open with me. He was the first person to tell me, before the doctors even had, which was really difficult but because he'd been so open with me, I was able to take it on the chin, we worked together to move on."

"I remember it all, I remember my neck crunching and waking up lying there. Normally you fall off the bike try to get back up and I tried but I just couldn't move. I was in hospital for seven months and my parents slept on a camp-bed by my bed every night. They had a huge part to play."

Table tennis came to him at his lowest point, in the unlikely form of five-time Paralympian Jim Munkley, then touring hospital wards while working for Disability Sport Wales. Jim kept trying to persuade the teenager to have a go at table tennis.

"He said 'if I'm annoying you, just tell me to go' and I said: 'go!’" said Tom.

But Jim was persistent. Tom eventually relented, just to keep him quiet, testing out a table in the hospital. He said: "I love my local Chinese in Cwmbran so much, I always used to rush home when we got a takeaway because I enjoyed the food that much.

"The first time I played table tennis, I let it go cold because I fell in love with the sport from that moment."

Tom Matthews, paralympian table tennis player, in his younger years.
Tom Matthews in his younger years by ©British Paralympic Table Tennis

Tom left hospital and didn't pick up a paddle for more than a year before watching London 2012. The table turned: soon, he was pestering Munkley for a chance to get back into the sport. He impressed in his first major championship in 2015, winning European bronze in Class 1 singles and team gold alongside Rob Davies.

World bronze in 2018 cemented him as a Paralympic medal contender, his emergence the result of a relentless mentality that doesn't come across when you first meet him.

"Tom is very chilled off the table but he's quite intense in the sport," said Neil, who won his own Paralympic gold in 1992.

"He's his own biggest critic and can be quite hard on himself sometimes. It's about getting the right balance right between being hard on himself and reflecting on positives."

The fortunes of ParalympicsGB have transformed over the past two decades with the boost of National Lottery funding and Matthews is one of a bumper 13-strong table tennis squad heading to Tokyo, led by reigning champion Will Bayley. Fellow gold medallist Davies was forced to withdraw from injury. His determination to join their number is clear, but not coming at the expense of enjoying his Japanese jaunt.

"I want to come away with a medal," he said.

"Realistically, it's my first Games and I want to enjoy the experience. If that ends up with a medal, I'd be more than happy but I'll be happy as long as I enjoy it.”

Tom spoke to Munkley “near enough every day” until his mentor passed away in 2017. As he picks up his paddle in Tokyo, he’ll be thinking of the best advice Jim ever gave him:

“Enjoy your life. Take every moment as it comes. The past is the past, you can’t change it. Change your future. Change what you’re going to do next.”

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