In the first of an occasional series on heroes of grassroots sport in Wales we interview Caroline Matthews, nominated for the 2015 Coach to Disabled People of the Year award in the Wales Sports Awards for her work with the Cardiff CELTS wheelchair basketball team.
In 2015, Caroline led the CELTS to become British National League division two champions and secure promotion to division one. She is the second person in the UK to qualify as a grade three wheelchair basketball coach and has brought this passion and experience to the Cardiff CELTS.
She also has national coaching responsibilities. Under Caroline’s supervision, the Wales U23 wheelchair basketball team won the Celtic Cup for the first time in 2015.
Caroline, 42, from Sully, has always been a keen sportswoman. Unfortunately, in her twenties she developed severe osteoarthritis in her knees. Her condition deteriorated quickly.
“When my knees deteriorated to the point where I could no longer run and jump, I became very depressed. I had always been very sporty and felt lost without that aspect of my life.
“I could still walk and it took me some time to realise that the world of disability sport was available to me. As soon as I realised that I could play wheelchair basketball, there was no stopping me!”
She went on to represent Great Britain in the Paralympic games in Athens and Beijing. She works as a solicitor by day and a wheelchair basketball player and coach in her spare time.
Where did your passion for basketball come from?
CM: I started to play basketball “on my feet” as a teenager – and I just love it. It’s a great sport that combines many elements: physical skill, fitness, tactical challenges and team spirit. It’s a sport that demands great all-round athletes and there is always something new to learn. When I could no longer play on my feet, I took to my wheels and found that a lot of the skills transferred directly to the wheelchair game.
Have you played any other sports competitively?
At Cardiff University I played basketball, volleyball and I rowed. After my knees deteriorated to the point where I couldn’t run, I tried sledge hockey (which is also great) and wheelchair basketball – but I just love basketball … I think I’m probably an addict!
Tell us about your time at the Cardiff CELTS.
I helped out coaching right from when the CELTS got started in 2002. At that time I was playing wheelchair basketball for Great Britain and a team based in London. By 2006 the CELTS were ready to enter the National League and I signed with them as a player. I enjoyed the challenge of helping them work their way up through the divisions.
I continued to play wheelchair basketball with GB until 2011, when I retired from international wheelchair basketball and used my extra time to develop my coaching skills. I am a player-coach for the CELTS first team and still love it every bit as much as when I first tried the sport.
What makes you such a successful coach?
I work full-time as well as training and coaching wheelchair basketball, so time management and organisational skills are essential. Interpersonal and communication skills are also vital. I need to be able to get my message across even when we are under pressure in games and the adrenaline starts to pump. I’ve also got to manage all the dynamics of being part of a team, which is extra challenging.
What changes did you make to the Wales U23 wheelchair basketball team to help them with the Celtic Cup for the first time?
A large part of the squad’s success is due to the increasing level of skill in the Welsh wheelchair basketball players. When I started playing in 2000, there were no wheelchair basketball teams in Wales. Now there are a number of thriving clubs with some top quality coaches, helping to raise the quality of the sport in Wales.
I ran some specific tactical arrangements in the Celtic Cup to win the matches but that wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t have the calibre of players to work with. A large part of the credit has to go to all the coaches, volunteers and players (and their family and supporters) for raising the level of wheelchair basketball in Wales.
What advice can you give to other people thinking about taking up a disability sport?
Do it! I’ve seen a lot of young people come into the basketball club looking nervous and timid and not sure what to expect, but within a few sessions they are demanding the ball and having a great laugh with their team mates.
You can gain so much from playing sport. Whatever you are thinking about having a go at – stop thinking about it, have a look on the internet, find your nearest club and get involved. You never know where it will take you – it took me to the Paralympics!
See how Caroline gets on by watching the Wales Sports Awards live on bbc.co.uk/sportwales and BBC iPlayer on Monday, December 7 at 8pm.