From his Castle Howard experience to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards, it’s been some year for Bailey Matthews. John Hardcastle, talks about the eight-year-old’s multisport journey and the indomitable spirit that’s made Bailey the talk of tri and beyond…
None of us could’ve expected that Bailey would make such an impact – but at the same time – what everybody saw on that Saturday in July at the Castle Howard tri was nothing that his family hadn’t seen before. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all become desensitised to his indomitable spirit and ability to overcome.
It’s also fair to say that he hasn’t achieved any of this alone; there are many people who have played a huge part in creating the enigma that is Bailey Matthews!
Starting with his parents Jono and Julie; they never wrapped him in cotton wool and have always encouraged him to overcome his disability. There were times when he was very small, he had bruises on his face, lumps, cuts and bumps on his head because he was allowed to live a ‘normal life’. As a result, Julie would worry about what school and medical professionals who came into contact with him might think - but neither parent has sought to curtail his determination to have a go at anything and everything. They encouraged him to do whatever his older brother did; swimming, indoor climbing, gymnastics you name it, he’s done it.
Another group who played a big part in his development as an athlete have been the Clumber Park parkrun team. They embraced Bailey’s participation at the run and made him feel as though he was as good as any other participant – even before he started doing it ‘independently'.
When he first started doing the parkrun, Jono and I would take turns pushing him around in a mobility pushchair (a big baby jogger). It wasn’t long before he said that he wanted to ‘do it himself’ - and he did. The walker had tiny, three-inch diameter wheels for ordinary terrain; he walked a bit and did some in the pushchair on the tough parkrun mixed terrain.
The very next week, Jono found an engineering company who modified the walker and fitted new chunky, all-terrain wheels. That week he did the run alone under his own steam. At the end of the lap – long after everybody else had finished – many people stayed behind and formed a tunnel, giving him the Mexican wave, a massive round of applause and the look on his face was priceless. Everybody present had a lump in their throat and a tear in their eye.
Whenever I walked around the course with him, you couldn’t help but be humbled. The fact that every runner that passed him shouted encouragement gave him a high-five or ruffled his hair – that sort of attention and camaraderie is something I wished every youngster could experience in sport.
No easy option
Bailey was in tears when Jono and I left for the 2014 London Triathlon. I recall Jono telling me on the journey that Bailey said he wanted to do a triathlon and that he had ordered him a wetsuit. Jono also that he would need to get in the water with Bailey and the Castle Howard team were very accommodating. I expected that when it came to it, they’d turn around and say ‘the rules won’t allow it’ or ‘our insurers won’t cover us for his participation’ or ‘health and safety’ - but, no, Jono entered Bailey for the Castle Howard event and Bailey started his training. It’d have been so easy for them to rely on one of the aforementioned excuses, to take the easy option. Far from it, they were not only amenable; they went out of their way to make it happen.
Bailey was excited and committed; he went open-water swimming, his dad got him a little indoor spin bike and he continued to do the parkrun. But I still expected that, when it came to it, someone would pull the plug and he wouldn’t be allowed to participate.
Bailey’s character and indomitable spirit means he knows he isn’t going to finish in first place and he’s likely to be last – but he enjoys it anyway. Something I wish I had – an ability to participate for the love of it! All too often we put barriers up because we’re scared of how we will perform; that we’ll not perform to standards that we are able to meet or exceed. But then you look at Bailey and realise that if he does it, why don’t we do it?
He’s an inspiration – and he doesn’t realise it. To him it’s just ‘a bit of fun’ – but he is still competitive!
Of course I’ve seen Bailey complain that he has a blister or a sore hand (from holding his walker) - but what I’ve never seen is him complain because he isn’t able-bodied. I don’t think Bailey sees himself as disabled or incapable (partly because his mum, dad and others - the parkrun crew or the Castle Howard team – have always made it possible for him to do whatever he wants).
I think Bailey sees his disability the way that able-bodied people see their limitations; he may not be as quick as others – but it doesn’t mean he can’t do it, it just means he’s limited as to how good he can be. If nobody else, he can compete against himself and do that because he enjoys it. That’s how Bailey sees his Cerebral Palsy.
He’s an incredible little lad, as his dad has said, he’s an author, a singer/songwriter, computer expert, an entrepreneur and a quasi-lawyer. He’s easily inspired, incredibly enthusiastic about whatever he does, has incredible self-confidence and absolute determination.
The attention and the accolades that he’s received are unexpected but thoroughly deserved. I just hope he continues to make this impact on triathlon and the world of sport. I know that he is determined to do all of the Castle Triathlon series next year and the team have been absolutely fabulous with him.
One person who has perhaps been overlooked for their part on that day was the compere. If you watch the clip captured by his other uncle; those words really built-up that finish - and I always find myself coming back to them, ‘see what happens when we all come together’.
That really sums it up; it’s taken a lot of people to make that happen: his mum and dad, Redlands School in Worksop, the Movement Centre who have treated Bailey, the parkrun crew who gave him his first taste of organised sport and the Castle Triathlon team who made it possible for him to do a ‘real’ multi-sport event.
I’m convinced Bailey will continue to ‘push it’ each time he’s out there and that he will become increasingly independent - expect to see him abandoning the walker more often - or pushing away a helping hand from dad!
Despite all the attention, Bailey hasn't changed at all. Im sure he will continue to be a cheerful, confident and cheeky little chap. Bailey doesn’t realise the attention he’s had and the magnitude of these awards and accolades. I remember after Pride of Britain - I spoke to him on the phone, all he wanted to do was talk about a new computer that one of his fellow Pride of Britain award winners had sent him. I suspect that one day, he will look back on it and find it difficult to believe just how big it all was - but for now, it’s just another day meeting new people.
I feel privileged to be Bailey’s uncle – he’s an inspiration to me and I just hope that he continues to be as determined, as cheerful, as confident and as able as he is!