Gillian Matthews, who redefined athleticism, leaving an indelible mark on Paralympic history and on grassroots disability sports, has died, aged 87
When Gillian Matthews fell from her favourite horse, Sunsketch, at the Larkhill Point to Point in 1965, she broke her back – and the high spinal fracture meant that she would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
But although the determined young mother, from Penselwood, near Wincanton, had four children, including three-year-old twin boys, she also found innovative ways to continue as a sportswoman. Sunsketch was uninjured in the accident and went on to win the Artillery Gold Cup at Sandown two years later.
Gill spent six months in Stoke Mandeville Hospital undergoing rehabilitation. Refusing to accept her active life was over, she started training as a Paralympian.
She went on to represent Great Britain in four Paralympic games. She won two bronze medals in Heidelberg in 1972 for table tennis. In 1974, Gill won a gold medal for the pentathlon at the Commonwealth Paralympic Games in New Zealand, displaying skills in shot put, a 60-yard wheelchair dash, swimming, javelin and archery. She also won bronze and silver in table tennis. In the Paralympic Games in Toronto 1976 and Arnhem 1980, she won medals in archery and lawn bowls.
Along with her collection of Paralympic achievements, in 1988 Gillian became the Paralympic World Champion table tennis player in Brisbane.
A lasting legacy
However, Gill wanted to bring the experience of the Paralympic games closer to home so that anyone could be inspired to have a go, particularly those who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to see disabled athletes in action. She felt that actually seeing what athletes could do would be inspirational for people with a disability.
Gill met the Bath & West Show team and in 1973, the Bath & West Games for the Disabled was introduced to the annual show, where the sport remains a feature.
In 1997, the Western Daily Press interviewed Gill for the 25th anniversary of the games at the Bath & West. Gill said: ‘I was already very competitive, but I became even more so when I was in a chair. I got involved in the National Games at Stoke Mandeville and competed for 26 years.
‘The event here is unique – no other agricultural show has anything like it. Sport can be a tremendous therapy and it has so much to offer in other ways.’
For many years, Gill remained heavily involved in the planning of the Bath & West Games for the Disabled, and campaigned for facilities for people with disabilities. The Games were visited by the late Queen, the then Prince Charles and also by Princess Alexandra. Gill persuaded the Prince to try some wheelchair slaloms – he managed a few obstacles, according to Gill’s son, Gerrard – but Princess Alexandra completed the entire course!
A lasting legacy
Despite her accident, Gill and her husband Franey maintained an avid interest in horses, especially racing. They raced at several courses including Wincanton, where their horse Alder Mairi won the Handicap Hurdle in 2014.
The couple had four children – Sarah (deceased), Belinda, Gerrard and Nicholas. Gill was grandmother to Venetia, Emily, Charlie, Jamie, Antonia, Tom and Elizabeth, and great- grandmother to Isabella.
As well as her extraordinary achievements as a Paralympian, Gillian was a Justice of the Peace and magistrate in Dorset from 1978 to 2006. In 2004, she was awarded the MBE for her services to charity.
Gill was also a trustee and patron of the Inspire Foundation which champions independence and quality of life for people with spinal cord injuries.
When life changes in an instant, none of us know how we would react. Gillian Matthews made the most of every moment and has left a sporting legacy that will inspire generations to come.