Deaf Sports Stars13th November 2013

Successful Deaf Sports Stars - Mat Gilbert and Professional Rugby

Mat Gilbert is Deaf and here he tells us about how he is carving out a successful professional rugby career

by Peter Hughes - Sports Writer

Relaxing in the luxury of Farleigh House, the 17th Century manor house in rural Wiltshire now converted into a state of the art training facility for Bath Rugby Football Club, with his muscular physique, Mat Gilbert looks every bit the professional rugby player.

​Indeed that is exactly what he is, but one thing distinguishes him from his colleagues at one of England’s elite rugby clubs. Mat is profoundly deaf. He admits that he would rather talk about his sporting success than his condition but is prepared to discuss it in the hope it can be an inspiration to Deaf and Hard of Hearing youngsters with sporting ambitions.

Mat’s hearing loss was first diagnosed when he was five years old. He has bilateral sensorineural hearing loss. In basic terms, that means that he has lost many of the hairs that help the cochlear nerve inside the ear pick up sound.

This is a progressive condition and Mat says his hearing deteriorated until he was around 19, by which time he had a hearing loss of over 100dB. By then, he had already begun to make his name as a rugby player. He took up the sport when he started at a new school at the age of 7. “At 7 I was probably a lot heavier and a lot bigger than every other child in my year group”, he explains, “ so rugby came quite naturally to me in terms of getting the ball and running through people.” In part, because of his size, he says that his hearing loss never really affected his sport through his school years.

When the time came to move to senior school, Mat went to the Duke of York Military School in Dover where he continued to play rugby, also joining Dover Rugby Club when he was 13. After school he took a year out to visit Australia, a trip that was cut short when he ran out of money.

​When he came back to this country, Mat started at Hartpury College in Gloucestershire. “When I first started at the college their rugby academy had a bit of a reputation.” He says, "In the time I was there we gained a very good reputation, winning the University Championships and producing a lot of players from my time now playing [professional rugby]”

After leaving college he briefly played rugby in Sardinia before joining Llanelli in Wales as a semi-professional player. A move to the Scarlets saw him play 15 games for the Welsh regional side before joining Bath, initially to cover for injuries and then being given a two year contract.

Mat clearly relishes playing for Bath and says his deafness has never been an issue there or at any of clubs he has played for. He says his fellow players are usually a little cautious when they first meet him but that soon changes, “We have a laugh and we have a joke about it. I think I’m fairly easy going about it. I think when you're new to a club people will tread the line fairly carefully about it and then someone will push at it and if you accept it, it becomes the norm. It makes no difference to me. I see myself as one of them and they treat me as one of them as well.”

He keeps his hearing aids in on the ptich, something he started at the age of 10 when he gave his hearing aid to a teacher for safe keeping who promptly lost it. “I wouldn’t survive at this level without any hearing so I wear a scrum cap and I add a bit of tape to them to keep the tubing together and to add a bit of waterproofing on a wet day.”

He even thinks his deafness might have given him an unfair edge in the early stages of his career, “I think it probably did help me a bit in my early years and gave me a bit of an advantage over someone else because the referee would maybe see me out of position and he would think hang on maybe he hasn’t heard me. He would call me again and that extra second gave me an opportunity to play the ball a bit more or something. I tried it with [top international referee] Nigel Owens and he just told me to get on my bike basically and I don’t do it anymore.”

Although he is playing top level sport at the moment, Mat knows that a rugby player’s career is a fairly short one but believes he may stay involved with the sport when he finishes playing, “I try and help out with other children with a hearing loss asking me questions or they come and visit my here in Farleigh. I think it’s an option to look at inclusive sport and pass on my experience to younger people that are not necessarily deaf but have a disability and try and keep them in sport and try and make sport inclusive for everyone.”

Mat is an ambassador for Action on Hearing Loss and wants to use that role to encourage as many young people with hearing loss as possible to get involved with sport and show them that while it is a barrier it is one that can be overcome.

It has been suggested that Mat is currently the only deaf fully professional sports person in the UK but that is a statistic tht is hard to prove. Mat points to the example of a former England rugby player, “Ben Cohen is clinically deaf and he kept it very quiet. When he won the World Cup no-one knew. He should wear a hearing aid but he chooses not to. He’s spoken about it on “Strictly Come Dancing” now, affecting his balance and stuff. It’s a shame really because playing 50 odd times for England he had a massive profile. That was an opportunity to put a marker down. Whatever his reasons are for not sharing, it would be interesting to know, but I’ve not had the opportunity to ask him”

Mat’s focus is on being as successful as he can in his chosen sport but, at the same, he believes there is another important role that he can play, explaining, “I’m fortunate to be almost in a position of power and able to be a role model for those who strive to achieve and I can pass on my knowledge and my experiences and hopefully it can benefit the younger generation.”

As role models go it would be difficult to find a better one. 

Article by Peter Hughes - Sports Writer

posted in Deaf Sport / Deaf Sports Stars

13th November 2013