Rob Matthews, a British blind athlete who won eight Paralympic gold medals, died on 11 April 2018, aged 56.
Rob Matthews broke 22 world records as a blind runner. “One of the reasons I run is that it is something I’m good at,” Matthews wrote in “Running Blind” (2009), his autobiography. “I feel alive when I run. When I was growing up, failing sight made me feel clumsy and awkward, but when I run I feel tall and graceful and confident.”
Robert Aubrey Matthews (1961-2018) was born in Strood, about 30 miles southeast of London. His father Aubrey was a shorthand typist, meeting his mother Patricia Crow, after World War II.
His father was blind. He lost his vision due to retinitis pigmentosa. “Dad’s blindness was never a problem for Mum,” Matthews wrote in his memoir, “although it took her parents some time to adjust to their daughter’s choice of partner.”
Just like his father, Rob lost his vision due to retinitis pigmentosa by the time he was 20 years old. Before his vision disappeared, he could not see in the dark, and bright light overwhelmed him. His central vision worsened faster than his peripheral vision. Still, he retained many memories of his past — his sister’s blonde hair and his father smoking a pipe. But the last image of himself, he wrote, was of a “frightened 15-year-old staring back at me in the mirror.”
Rob attended the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford, England, where he first began to run as an athlete. Running turned back the fear, he said, proving that his father had been correct when he told him that blindness was not the worst thing that could happen to him.
At the 1983 European athletic championships for the visually impaired in Varna, Bulgaria, he won the gold medal in the 800, 1500, and 5000-meter races. He won gold medals in the same distances at the 1984 Paralympic Games on Long Island. Four years later, at the 1988 Paralympics Games in Seoul, South Korea, he repeated the feat.
At the 1992 Paralympic Games in Barcelona, Spain, he won his 7th gold medal, in the 5000-meter race. He won his 8th at the 2000 Sydney Games in Australia, in the 10,000-meter event. He also won four Paralympic silver medals, including one in the marathon in Sydney, and one bronze, in the 1500 at Barcelona. He competed in his last Paralympic Games in 2004 in Athens, without winning a medal.
He had always dreamed of shattering the 2-minute mark for the first time for the 800-meter distance — just as sighted runners aimed to break the 4-minute mile, until Roger Bannister did it in 1954. At a track meet in Brighton, England, Matthews won the 800-meter race with a time of 1:59:90.
Comparing himself to Sebastian Coe, the British Olympian who won two gold medals, Matthews wrote, “Had Seb Coe and I set our world records for 800m at the same meeting, I’d have finished just 120m (18 seconds) behind him.”
For all of his events, Matthews ran with a sighted guide, tethered by a short rope looped around their fingers. Matthews had more than 100 running guides, building relationships based on trust.
“Running is like a safety valve,” Matthews told an interviewer at The Independent before the 2004 Games. “It’s helped me keep a measure of sanity over the last nine months, and most importantly it has given me a goal.”
He married Sarah Kerr in 2007 after moving to New Zealand in 2006, where she is from. They had two children: Molly and Thomas. In New Zealand, Matthews was a massage therapist, motivational speaker, and triathlete.
He died at a hospice in Auckland, New Zealand, of brain cancer.
He kept a blog about his cancer and his life. He wrote that he remembered attending soccer games with his father at Priestfield Stadium in Kent, England, to watch the local team, Gillingham FC, play. “This was our special father-son bonding time,” he wrote, “and we went a number of times when I was 8 years old. Given I still had some useful vision, I would act as Dad’s eyes, trying to identify players and explain what was happening. Although, to be honest, my eyesight was fading by then, and it was a bit of a case of the blind leading the blind.”
Photo of Rob Matthews with sighted guide runner at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games by Getty Images.
Photo of Rob Matthews wearing glasses at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games by Jamie Squire.