Four years later, when the 1988 Paralympics were held in Seoul, South Korea, he repeated the feat. He now had six Paralympic gold medals.
Between those Games, Matthews set a record for a blind runner in the 800 meters. He had dreamed of shattering the 2-minute mark for the first time — much as sighted runners had once taken aim at breaking the 4-minute mile, until Roger Bannister did it in 1954.
At a track meet in Brighton, England, Matthews won the 800-meter race with a time of 1:59:90.
“Now I was really on the same playing field as quality sighted athletes,” he wrote in his memoir, “and hoped I had their respect as well as their admiration.”
Comparing himself to Sebastian Coe, the British Olympian who won two gold medals, Mr. Matthews wrote, “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.”
Like others runners with his extreme visual impairment, Matthews ran with a guide, tethered by a short rope looped around their fingers. A blind runner needs to feel synchronized with his guide in order to navigate a track with confidence and at optimal speed.
“I’m trusting this guy fully with my life,” David Brown of the United States, the world Paralympic record-holder in the 100 and 200 meters, said in a telephone interview. “You want a guy who’s not only in shape — who can run at your pace and comfortably yell throughout the race in front of 90,000 or 100,000 people. It’s loud out there and he’s my eyes.”
Matthews had more than 100 guides over his long career, building relationships based on trust.
“Most of his guide runners became lifelong friends,” Matt Lawton, one of those guides, wrote in The Daily Mail last week, “but the guy who ran him straight into a lamppost on their first outing together didn’t return for a second session. The poor chap was mortified.”
Robert Aubrey Matthews was born in Strood, about 30 miles southeast of London, on May 26, 1961. His parents, Aubrey, a shorthand typist, and the former Patricia Crow, a homemaker, met after World War II.
“Dad’s blindness was never a problem for Mum,” Matthews wrote in his memoir, “although it took her parents some time to adjust to their daughter’s choice of partner.”
Before his vision disappeared, Matthews recalled, he could not see in the dark, and bright light overwhelmed him. His central vision worsened faster than his peripheral vision. Still, he retained many memories of his past — his sister’s blonde hair and his father smoking a pipe. But the last image of himself, he wrote, was of a “frightened 15-year-old staring back at me in the mirror.”
Running turned back the fear, he said, proving that his father had been correct when he told him that blindness was not the worst thing that could happen to him.
Matthews returned to the Paralympics in 1992, in Barcelona, Spain, where he won his seventh gold medal, in the 5,000-meter race. He won his eighth in 2000, at the Sydney Games in Australia, in the 10,000-meter event. He also won four Paralympic silver medals, including one in the marathon in Sydney, and one bronze, in the 1,500 at Barcelona.
He competed in his last Paralympics in 2004, in Athens, without winning any medals. The Games were held less than a year after his first wife, Kath Stevens, died of a blockage in her brain.
“Running is like a safety valve,” Matthews told The Independent before the 2004 Games. “It’s helped me keep a measure of sanity over the last nine months, and most importantly it has given me a goal.”
He married Sarah Kerr in 2007 after moving to New Zealand, where she is from, the previous year.
Besides his wife, he survived by their two children, Molly and Thomas; his sisters, Angela Touni and Sue Angelini; and his mother.
In New Zealand, Matthews became a massage therapist, motivational speaker and triathlete.
He also kept a blog detailing his fight with cancer and his recollections. In one post he remembered attending soccer games with his father at Priestfield Stadium in Kent, England, to watch the local team, Gillingham FC, play.
“This was our special father-son bonding time,” he wrote, “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.”