Matt King is an electrical engineer who plays a
mean pipe organ.
He is also the best tandem cyclist in the country.
BY Steve Trivette
Matt King loves music.
But as King and his tandem partner Garth Blackburn climbed to the
second step of the awards platform at the 1998 IPC World Championships,
the notes coming over the loudspeaker were from a song that he didn't
want to hear.
King and Blackburn had finished second to an Australian team on the
final night of the three-day competition that in his own words King
called a "roller coaster."
In qualification, King and Blackburn had a blown rear tire less than
100 yards from the finish line, which sent them sprawling to the
concrete track of the 7-Eleven Velodrome, leaving both battered, bloody
and mentally shaken. They had less than 15 minutes to get themselves and
their bike repaired for a second qualifying attempt.
"It happened so fast that I really don't know what
happened," King said. "I didn't feel anything until we hit the
track and then I felt a lot".
Lying on a table in the medical tent, King had a cut chin,
scraped elbow, a leg that looked like it had been attacked by a blender
and a hunk of meat missing from his butt.
Tape, gauze and a can of nu-skin later, King and Blackburn were back
on their bike and rolling toward a qualifying time that would rank them
third going into the second round.
"In a situation like that, the psychological setback is worse
than the physical setback," King said. "The last time I had a
wreck like that, I was out for two days. We didn't have that option this
time. All the pressure was on the support crew, I wasn't feeling any
pressure, I was just feeling pain".
At the time of the crash several unofficial watches in the infield
had them on a pace that would have broken the world record in the event.
No record, bent bike and bruised body.
As King and Blackburn roared around the banked track in their second
qualifying run, there was one moment of doubt.
"When you get to that same point on the track you hold your
breath," King said. "You've been on the course before and you
have a new tire, but you can't help but think about the last
"But we weren't going to give up."
Give up has never been a part of Matt King's vocabulary.
As a youngster in Centralia, Wash., he would race himself every
morning trying to better his paper-route time.
As a college student at Notre Dame, he not only earned a degree in
electrical engineering, but added another in music as a pipe organ
After seeing a promotional video on bike racing, he began training
and 18 months later qualified to represent his country in international
He's a regular at schools, where he speaks to students and parents
about living up to expectations.
By the way, Matt King is blind.
Born with retinitis pigmentosa, an incurable eye disease that
gradually destroys the retina and optic nerve, King's sight began
diminishing the day he was born. By the time he reached Notre Dame, it
was all but gone. At 32, he now has light perception, but that's it.
He is the first to admit he struggled at times to adapt to his loss
of sight. He even gave up solo bike riding during his freshman year,
losing his only means of transportation. Undaunted, he got hold of a
tandem bike and conned fellow students into being his driver.
"It (losing his sight) was such a slow process, I almost had to
discover it a little at a time," he said. "Sometimes when I
should have been adapting, I was too late from time to time and that
would sometimes set me back".
King handles those setbacks the same way he handles all setbacks. He
found another way.
A video released by the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes led him to
a USABA training camp held at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado
Springs, Colo., in June of 1995.
In his first race, he finished 29th in a field of 30.
No big deal.
"I was introduced to the people I needed to know," King
said. "From that day, I began to move forward".
After that first competition, King met Spencer Yates, a man who King
still calls one of his mentors.
"I prefer the word mentor to the word hero," King said.
"Spencer took me from a very green competitor to an elite rider in
a very short time. He and I worked and lived together for nine
The pair quickly became a force in the disabled cycling world,
winning national titles in the 40-kilo time trials and the tandem road
race in 1995 and 1996.
But the marriage between Spencer and King came full circle at the
1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta. With Yates up front as the driver and
King on the back seat as the stoker, the pair clocked a world-record
time in the quarterfinals of the 4,000 pursuit. They eventually finished
fourth, one notch below medals.
"That was frustrating," King said.
It wasn't, however, the end.
In 1997, King was part of the fourth place team at the EDS National
Cycling Championships, marking the first time a blind athlete had
competed against sighted athletes at the national level.
It's all a part of King's on-going belief in himself and other
"It's something that parents, managers, co-workers and even
friends should know," he said. "If they have lower
expectations of the disabled - athletes or not - that person will live
down to those expectations. If the expectations are higher, they will
live up to them."
"That's just what he believes and what he teaches," said
USABA executive director, Charlie Huebner. "Matt and I went to a
seminar at Denver's Anchor Center for Blind Children and he talked to
parents of children under the age of 5. He told them that they have to
treat their blind children the same way that they treat other children.
You can't treat them differently".
Never one to use his blindness as an excuse, King has become an
apostle for disabled athletes.
Some people feel badly when they push or demand something of a blind
student or child," he said. "But we need to have higher
expectations and be more demanding. We can't let people with
disabilities use them as a crutch".
"They have to break that crutch".
After coming back after their terrible crash to finish third in
qualifying, at the IPC World Championships, King and Blackburn defeated
a Japanese team in the semifinals to move against the Australians in the
finals. The team from Japan had won the first of the best-of-three races
in the semis, but King and Blackburn won the next two to advance.
The Australians appeared to have won the first race of the finals in
a photo finish but the judges gave the win to the Americans on a
relegation after the interference call.
In the second heat, King and Blackburn won by more than a bike
length, setting off a USA celebration.
But after a delayed judges meeting, the U.S. team was disqualified
after it was ruled they had interfered with the Aussies.
The third race was anti-climatic as the Australians- given a second
chance- rolled past the emotion-spend Americans.
A protest was filed, but to no avail.
"Six months is a long time to sit around and think about what
happened," King said. "But all we can do now is get ready for
And get ready they will.
"Matt is such an inspiration to me that I can't believe
it", Blackburn said. "To go out and compete against sighted
athletes the way he does is unbelievable. It's going to be a long off
season, but we'll be ready come next year".
There won't be a World Championship in 1999.
The next big international meet will be the 2000 Paralympic Games in
King will be 34 by then, but he counts on being there.
"We'll be back", he promised. "Oh yeah, we'll be
With one more small awards-platform step to take.
But it's no step for a stepper.
Trivette is a freelance writer in