From hospital bed to Paralympic podium. Meet Tom Matthews.

Teachers used to call me ‘smiler’ at school - I was always happy, with a positive outlook on life.

Table tennis helped me rediscover that positive mindset after my mountain biking accident when I was 16-years-old. So yes, table tennis changed my life – it probably saved my life too.

I remember lying in the hospital bed and there was a guy called Jim Munkley who would come round the wards, trying to get people involved in sport. Being a typical teenager, I was like ‘I’m getting back on my bike mate’ – in the end, I agreed to play just to get him off my back really.

But I absolutely loved it. I even let my Chinese takeaway go cold – that never happened. Playing sport again gave me a real buzz.

But when I left hospital I just wanted to reconnect with my mates, to start living again. Sport and table tennis fell by the wayside as I started going out a lot and drinking more, all in a bid to try and accept my accident and get used to my life as a wheelchair user. To be honest I was in a really dark place, and it was only after a couple of years, thanks to the support and understanding of my friends and family, that I got through that.

"I’ve just got a passion inside me for the sport"

In early 2013 – having watched and enjoyed the London 2012 Paralympic Games - I gave Jim a ring and asked if I could give table tennis another shot. He said yes immediately, and I took it seriously from the off. Jim had competed at five Paralympic Games and he became a real driving force for me.

Just being back involved in sport and in the competitive scene really helped that positive mindset. Things were going well, then just a few months before Rio 2016 I broke my leg in a freak accident.

That misfortune was like a switch in my head – it gave me the push to believe I really could make it. In turn, that positivity made me think okay, I’m happy with my life, I know I can look forward and I know I can achieve great things. This time I really was ready to commit.

There might not be the adrenaline I found in mountain biking – weaving between the trees and rocks and the sheer speed of flying downhill in the outdoors - but I still get the same buzz in table tennis when I go out on to the field of play. The competitiveness of it keeps me driven. I always think of table tennis as like a game of chess - it’s more of a mind game than you might think. Every point is different, you can’t rush, and you can’t just hit your way through it. You’ve got to think about what you’re doing – it’s incredibly strategic.

Now I’m just thinking about Paris 2024 – it’s a massive year coming up and the pinnacle of all our hard work. Of course, I’ll try not to think about it too much at Christmas, but I’ve just got a passion inside me for the sport. I think the adversity I’ve been through with my injury and having to come back from dark places just gives me the fight from inside. Even when you’re losing you’re learning - that’s what I get from it. I don’t take it as a loss, I take it as a learning experience and I use that as a drive to go forward.

I try to see the positives in everything: I am a smiler.

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