Deaf Sports Stars9th November 2014

Deaf Canoeist Making a Splash in Mainstream Competition

Retiring from International Competition, Matthew Sykes has a lot to be proud of

by Sarah Lawrence

As the only Deaf professional canoeist in the world, 42 years old Matthew Sykes has had to compete in mainstream competitions all of his life. After 32 years paddling and following a successful career, Matthew made the difficult decision to hang up his canoe from international competition at the end of the British Open weekend, which took place at the start of November.

Born profoundly Deaf in Banbury, Oxfordshire into a hearing family, Matthew was the only Deaf person in his family. Whilst British Sign Language is his first language, Matthew’s sporting life has lead to him feeling an equal part of the Deaf and hearing worlds.

Aged 5, Matthew was sent to the Woodford Boarding School in London, a Primary School for Deaf children, fondly called the Winston Churchill School for the Deaf by the Deaf community, before then going to the world famous Mary Hare School in Reading where he was also a boarder. Aged 18, he continued his studies at Leamington Spa college before going to Anglia University and then Lancaster University where he studied Technical and Informational Illustration.

Despite his immersion into Deaf education, Matthew recalls growing up feeling integrated into hearing life as well as in the Deaf world. “I had many hearing friends, felt included and supported by them and my family. I faced the usual barriers in communicating with hearing people obviously, but I didn't feel disadvantaged.”

A sporty child, Matthew enjoyed playing football in a Deaf team and also swimming in inter-school competitions. However, it was during an outward-bound school trip that he was first introduced to canoeing, an experience that saw him take up the sport and develop an ambition to compete at the Olympic Games. In the early stages of taking up the sport, Matthew faced the same problems experienced by many a budding Deaf sports star, with coaches not being very Deaf aware and communication being problematic.

Three years later, Matthew entered his first canoe slalom competition, finishing very credibly in mid-field. “I was more than happy with that!” Matthew told me. “From there I worked my way through the different divisions from Division 4 to Premier though the years.”

Getting involved with Team GB, Matthew was pleased to work with a team coach who was Deaf aware and could even use some BSL. Now married with two children, Matthew’s progression through the canoe slalom ranks, saw him training 5 to 6 times per week during his prime competitive years, but with work and family commitments in recent years, he had to reduce that to training twice a week.

Reflecting on his achievements in canoe slalom, Matthew told me, “I have been involved in both the Great Britain U16 and Senior teams and been a part of the England Junior and Senior teams. I have had many successes and been the Southern Region Junior Champion, the British Youth Champion and the Eastern Region Senior Champion.”

“I have been fortunate enough to have trained and competed in some great places too – not only around the UK but also in Ireland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Australia.”

Feeling fortunate to have been a professional canoeist through supportive sponsors, Matthew is now the Sales and Marketing Manager at Sign Lingual, an organisation that provides interpreting and other services to the Deaf community. Commenting on his work at Sign Lingual, Matthew told me, “I am the only Deaf member of staff, but the team here is excellent and we all communicate well together.”

Competing at the elite level for many years, Matthew made the decision to retire after the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. However, the lure of competing in the 2012 London games was too great and he was back in his boat training in 2010 aiming to make the Irish team. Placing fourth and missing out on team selection by one tenth of a second, Matthew was disappointed but said, “it was an incredible experience.”

Now looking to the future following his retirement from the international stage, I asked Matthew to identify his top five canoeing achievements:

  1. “Carrying the Olympic Torch for the London Games – I was the first Deaf person in Ireland to carry the torch, running with it for 300 metres in Dundonald.”
  2. “Being shortlisted for the Ireland Olympic Team and getting one step closer to my Olympic dream.”
  3. “Completing the World Cup in Cardiff – being the first Irish paddler to go through to the semi-final. I finished in 47th place.”
  4. “Being selected for the Great Britain and Ireland Team.”
  5. “Becoming British Youth Champion in 1990.”

Aiming to support his own children, Matthew is also keen to encourage other Deaf youngsters into canoeing. “I would really like to see Deaf people become committed to the sport,” he told me. “You have to be really dedicated and train hard to achieve your goals. Don’t give up – it’s worth it.”

Despite his long-term dedication to canoeing and his work and family, Matthew also has other interests. “I am a designer and have created websites, 3D animation and multimedia. I support Arsenal football team, although I don’t get to go to live matches very often. I love foreign travel and would like to go back to America and explore more, however, my dream trip would be to the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 or Tokyo Olympic Games 2020.”

Still hoping that Deaf Canoeing will become a Deaflympic and Paralympic sport, at the end of the interview I asked Matthew to recall a funny experience about his canoeing career. “When I had been to Prague for the World University Championships, I was travelling back home and realised I couldn’t find my hearing aid. I came all the way back to the UK without it and I was really annoyed that I had left it in Prague. When I got home, I took off my trainers and there it was in my shoe! I had travelled all the way back and had no idea it was there – 24 hours in the minibus with my hearing aid in my trainer!”

As this Deaf canoeing talent leaves the international stage, we hope his knowledge and experience will find its way to guiding Deaf youngsters to having equally successful sporting careers.

To learn more about Matthew go to and on Facebook or Twitter

Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Deaf Sport / Deaf Sports Stars

9th November 2014