When Ben Tudhope chases Winter Paralympic glory in Zhangjiakou, he’ll have two medals in his sights, two names in his heart and a message in his jacket reminding him why he’s doing it.
There, embroidered in the lining, is a simple phrase: ‘I ride for Matty’.
The stitching, which features in every Australian athlete’s uniform, refers to Matthew Robinson, Tudhope’s former para snowboarding teammate who died in February 2014, aged just 28.
Just weeks before the Sochi Winter Paralympics, where Tudhope made his Games debut, Robinson suffered serious injuries in a crash in La Molina, Spain.
After spinal and neck surgeries in Barcelona, Robinson was taken home via air ambulance but during a refuelling stop in Kuwait, he suffered a cardiac arrest and could not be revived.
“It’s absolutely an honour to have the Matty stitching on a piece of our uniform,” said Tudhope.
“Paralympics Australia actually surprised us this time around and four years ago in Korea too.
“He was my teammate going into Sochi and it’s just incredible to be able to honour his legacy and know that he’s still with us, he’s still with me, with the team and his legacy will live on in Paralympics Australia history and in our sport as well, not just in Australia but in the debut of our sport.
“He was actually the first guy to win an IPC World Cup for Australia so he paved the way for everyone here. So it’s great that we can honour him here and know that he’s here with us every step of the way.”
Tudhope had a particularly special connection with Robinson, who helped the youngster deal with the prospect of spending months away from home in camps in Europe.
“He was truly special to me. He was my first team captain back when I joined the team, so I know he’d be so proud of my accomplishments,” he said.
“Back when I was 10 years old through 13, 14, he definitely took me under his wing.
“Especially when I started going overseas, for months away from home, he just made everything fun.
“The best way to describe him was a larrikin. He loved one-liners, he loved pulling jokes and he just made everyone around him so happy
“He truly embodied what it meant to be an Australian Paralympian and a snowboarder as well and he lifted me to improve my snowboarding as well. He made me fall in love with our competition, our sport.”
Then just 14, Tudhope started his debut games wearing a black armband for his friend at the opening ceremony, and ended his time in Sochi as the delightful, infectious personality who captured hearts and minds around the world.
But as the years passed and Tudhope grew into a para snowboarding star, tragedy struck again when his coach Mikko Wendelin died suddenly in November 2019.
Finnish coach Wendelin had headed up ‘Team Unicorn’, the group of para snowboarders from various countries: Australian Tudhope, Finland’s Matti Suur-Hamari and Canadian Alex Massie, who train together, and compete against each other.
Tudhope, then 20, won two gold medals in his next World Cup, held in Finland, and dedicated the victories to Wendelin.
Now the world No.1 para snowboarder at just 22, Tudhope embraces how Robinson and Wendelin, in both life and death, have shaped him.
“How I look at these guys passing, people so close to me, at quite the young age is I always see their fun and good memories, I don’t soak in their sorrows, the bad times, the sad times,” he said.
“I look at how would they want me to live. I live and ride in honour of them and their legacy and always look at happy memories of what good people they were and what they brought to this world.
“Because they were two of the most special people for me and they brightened up not just my world but everyone’s world around them.”
Tudhope, eyeing breakthrough medals at his third games, commences his snowboard cross qualifiers on Sunday then is eyeing the big final on Monday before taking on banked slalom later in the week.
The “epic” Zhangjiakou Paralympics course is the same as the Winter Olympics, and the biggest yet in para-snowboarding.
It’s a step forward Tudhope is sure both his one-time mentors would relish.
“They’d be super proud of watching me ride this course but also they’d be absolutely amazed with where this sport has come because they both had big goals and they did a lot for para snowboarding,” he said.
“So to showcase how far we have come from those early days, I think they would be blown away by the courses, by the builds, by the level of riding from every competitor.
“That’s what’s driven me to get as good as I am and continue to improve as well, because there’s no such thing as a perfect snowboarder. You can always improve your skills and get better.
“I know my pathway is still going on. I’m definitely not at my peak yet.”