Bob Matthews MBE, one of Britain’s most successful Paralympic athletes recently died at the age of 56 after battling brain cancer. Competing in blind middle and long-distance events he won 8 gold medals across 7 Paralympic Games and broke 22 world records.

Bob Matthews winning the 5000m at the World Championships in Assen

Competing in the 5000m at the 1990 World Championships in Assen, Holland where he won Gold.

Bob Matthews competing at Paralympic Games

Competing at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games

Bob was born with the degenerative eye condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa which his father also had. He began to notice changes in his vision aged 11, Bob did not begin to explore his athletic ability until he started losing his sight.

Bob wrote in his 2009 autobiography ‘Running Blind’

One of the reasons I run is that it is something I’m good at. 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.

At the Royal National College for the Blind, Hereford he enjoyed his love of running and played Goalball. After College he quickly became known in the sports world. His first experience of the Paralympics was playing Goalball at the 1980 Games in Arnhem. In the 1984 Summer Paralympic Games in New York and the following 1988 Paralympic Games in Seoul Bob won gold medals in the 800, 1500 and 5000 metre races. Between those Games, Bob set a record for a blind runner in the 800 metres - beating the 2 minute mark. He won the 800 metre race at a track meet in Brighton with a record of 1:59:90.

Bob wrote about this record in his memoirs,

Now I was really on the same playing field as quality sighted athletes and hoped I had their respect as well as their admiration. 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.

In order for Bob to compete he relied on a guide, an athlete to run alongside him, to navigate the track, to enable him to run with confidence and speed. Bob had more than 100 guides, building relationships based on trust. Matt Lawton one of his guides wrote,

Most of his guide runners became lifelong friends but the guy who ran him straight into a lamp post on their first outing together didn’t return for a second session. The poor chap was mortified.

On a personal level, Bob had been brought up in a family where his Dad’s blindness was never perceived to be a problem. His father had told him that blindness was not the worst thing that could have happened to him and turning to running helped with the fear of losing his sight. He remembered seeing his sister’s blonde hair and his father smoking a pipe but the last image of himself was of a “frightened 15 year old staring back at me in the mirror.”

One of his recollections of his father was watching Gillingham FC play,

This was our special father-son bonding time 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.

In 1994, he married Kath but within 10 years of marriage tragedy struck when she died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage. Once more running offered him an outlet and he competed again in Athens before meeting his second wife, Sarah, on a trip to New Zealand in 2006.

Nicola Wilkins, an old friend of Bob’s said,

Sarah for some reason had been to some kind of flea market and bought a braille pocket watch, completely on a whim. A day later, she met Bob and gave it to him. She said she had just felt drawn to this thing.

Bob emigrated to New Zealand to be with Sarah switching to Para Triathlon and he worked as a sports massage therapist and motivational speaker. They had two children, Thomas and Molly.

In a New Zealand documentary about his life he said,

There have been people in my life who have told me I won’t be able to do something, they’ve been a source of inspiration really. Because when anyone tells me that I say, ‘Just watch me’.

Article sources: ‘Running Blind’ by Bob Matthews, The Daily Telegraph, The New York Times, The Daily Mail, UK Athletics

Image credits: Getty images, The Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies. 

You can read more about the history of the Paralympic Games on our website here and Para Athletics here