Tom had a mountain bike accident when he was 16 and met an Aspire Independent Living Advisor whilst he was at Rookwood Hospital. He lived in an Aspire accessible house when he was discharged from hospital and has been living there again since 2019.  He has just won a bronze medal for table tennis at the Tokyo Paralympics.

I was injured in March 2009, when I was 16.  I was out mountain biking in the Abergavenny area, near where I live. I used to race so I was out training and went over the handlebars. It was the first time I had been on that track. I was flown to Frenchey Hospital in Bristol and then went to the Heath Hospital in Cardiff whilst I waited for a bed to be available in the Spinal Injury Centre in Rookwood, where I stayed for about seven months.

Tom in a wheelchair outside his house with his dog

At the time of my injury, I was a student and had just started my first year in college. I was ahead of most people, so I still managed to pass the first year of the carpentry course even though I was never going to be one. I passed the exam in my hospital bed – a tutor had to come in to make sure I wasn’t cheating!  

I found out about Aspire through their Independent Living Advisor at Rookwood who came to talk to patients.  At the time I was only 16 so my mother knew more about what was going on and what help was available to us. My parents used to do shifts sitting with me on a deck chair by my bed.  They decided to have their house adapted so I could go back to live with them and so I lived in Aspire’s house in Hirwaun for a few months whilst that was being done.

I was lucky that Aspire had a bungalow just ten minutes away from where they live. If I hadn’t been able to live in that bungalow I would have been stuck in hospital for up to a year. As I was only 16, I was desperate to get out of hospital. 

My injury had a massive impact on my family, as there was no one disabled in the family, so it was a real learning curve, re-learning how to do everything - like having a newborn, learning everything over again. I think it took my parents years to get over it, they probably never will completely, but it’s nice for them to see my confidence and what’s been happening. Some of my friends couldn’t face it. Only one or two in my group now are from back then. Some people find the transition really hard, and some people don’t.  But now I’ve got a better life than most so I’m not complaining. I’m loving life!

Tom Matthews with his Paralympic bronze medal

When I came out of hospital, I was weak - being a tetraplegic means every bit of weight feels heavier than normal and so getting a lightweight wheelchair was really important. Everything is so expensive and anything to do with disability has shot up in price. I wouldn’t have had an independent life if I hadn’t got the Aspire Grant as I never would have been able to afford the wheelchair without it and that was key to my independence.  I’ve still got that wheelchair, ten years on.  I have three chairs now; my everyday chair, a table tennis chair and the one I bought with my grant. That one is at my parent’s house as it means I don’t have to get my chair out every time I get there, I can just use that one. It’s still going strong!

When I was at Rookwood Jim Munkley, a five time Paralympian in table tennis (although I didn’t know that then!) would come around the wards trying to get people out of bed and do sport. The only one easy enough for me to do at the time was table tennis but I kept saying no as I was 16 and planning to get back on my bike. Then one time I said yes just to shut him up, to be honest, but I fell in love with it instantly.  I now go back to Rookwood to play table tennis with the spinal injured patients there.  Ever since then I’ve been focussed on sport, with my main goal of getting to Tokyo. 

I lived with my parents for ten years but when I was training for Tokyo, I knew the previous tenant in the Aspire bungalow and knew he was moving out, so I got back in touch with Aspire to see if it was available. I thought it would be a good opportunity to see how far I can take my independence and live on my own. Everything in the house is adapted, including the kitchen worktops, which is a massive help. I’ve been living there for a year and a half and it’s the best move I ever made.  

I won’t be here forever as I might have to move to Sheffield to carry on with my training.  It’s been the perfect opportunity and I can’t thank Aspire enough.

The pandemic got in the way but luckily the Paralympic Games went ahead this year. It didn’t really bother me that it was postponed as I had never been to a Games before, so I didn’t know what to expect. I’m used to competing with no crowds so that worked to my advantage.  It was my first games so I was glad to get a medal, although I thought I could have gone further. 

It’s been a bit of a mad time since I came back from Tokyo, so I was glad to have my house to come back to, a place I have all to myself, when I needed a proper rest.  My best mate and his girlfriend organised a homecoming party at a local pub. I had no idea, although I should have known as my mate loves a party! They took me for a meal and said, “shall we go to the pub for a drink?” and when I went in all my friends and family were there. Then on the Sunday I went over to my parent’s house and people were lined up in the street. It was incredible, it’s been nuts!  Then I went to the GB homecoming events in both Wembley and in Cardiff.

My next aim is to qualify for the Paralympics in Paris, although it may be tough squeezing training into just three years.  I’ll then see where it goes. I’d like to do a few more Paralympic games. I previously said I wanted to do two but then Brisbane came into the mix and that’s a very nice place to go so I’ll keep going as long as I keep competing and winning medals.

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