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Overcoming Illness and Going on Physical Challenges with Kiko Matthews

Charlene Gibson - Oldest British women to summit Cho Oyu in 2016 and now heading to climb Ama Dablam in 2018!

An unexpected injury or diagnosis that limits physical capabilities can be a huge blow to any adventurer. The fear of not being able to do what you love or even do much at all dashes dreams of expeditions and future challenges, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Kiko Matthews is a former teacher turned adventurer who set a world record after rowing 3,000 nautical miles from Gran Canaria to Barbados in 49 days. Before taking on that record-making journey, Kiko was diagnosed with Cushing's disease, a rare condition that made even walking up the stairs impossible. The tumour on her pituitary gland also caused severe memory loss, psychosis, diabetes, osteoporosis, insomnia and muscle wastage.

Despite this incredible health challenge and a second tumour that was successfully removed in August 2017, Kiko continues to take on physical challenges. We can learn so much from this resilient woman who didn’t let her diagnoses ruin her life and instead devoted time to her true passion.

Let Go of Control

You can’t control everything. In 2009, Kiko was diagnosed with Cushing’s and ended up in intensive care with endless health issues. Kiko was as positive as she could be knowing that there wasn’t anything she could do at the moment. With no control of the outcome, there was no need to worry until the doctors did what they could.

What is the point in worrying when you don't have control? Kiko assures us that it’s a waste of energy when you may need that energy to stay alive. She found similar situations in the wild. If there’s a massive wave coming at you and your boat, all you can do is assess the risk, do everything you can to stay alive, and release your need to control.

When you let go of control, everything becomes more peaceful and calm.

Get Inspired Through Recovery

Kiko thought that when the tumour was removed, her life would go back to normal. It turned out that her pituitary stopped working and her body ached terribly. It took about 18 months for her to get back on track and function normally.

During this recovery period, Kiko was inspired by friends who’d also dealt with incredible physical challenges. Everyday we see people in wheelchairs or without sight or ability to speak who get on with life. Kiko related, “You can’t sit and mope unless you want your life to be rubbish.”

Kiko certainly didn’t sit back and let life pass her by. She decided that she wanted to find something she was passionate about and came upon stand up paddle boarding. Kiko shows us that recovery doesn’t have to be a negative experience. It can lead you to something extraordinary.

Prove People Wrong

Before embarking on her row on the Atlantic, Kiko was by no means a professional rower. Planning her trip was like writing the first page of a book, she described. Where do you start?

As she created a sponsorship deck to raise money for the charity that helped save her life, Kiko had little idea of who to send it to. It was certainly scrappy in the beginning, but for every 10 phone calls, Kiko would get connected with someone who might be able to help.

Going through the difficult process of fundraising, Kiko clung to her goal of proving that you can do anything. You don’t have to be special, you just have to want it enough. Once she got that in her head, nothing could stop her. Proving people wrong has always motivated Kiko to double down on her goals. She said, “When they tell me I can’t do something, I’m like, ‘Amazing! Thank you.’”

Embrace What You’re Given

Before embarking on her great adventure, Kiko was diagnosed with a second tumour. Suddenly, there was so much going on between trying to stay alive and manage the planning of an expedition. In the end, Kiko saw it as a positive thing. She had the tumour taken out and recovered just in time for the trip.

Getting on the boat at the starting line, Kiko had never been to sea in her life and had no idea what she was about to face. At many moments during her journey she would look around and see no sign of life. At one time, Kiko was closer to someone in space than on Earth. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, Kiko embraced the experience and loved the opportunity of solitude.

Throughout the adventure, Kiko’s health determined her day to day life. Her routine varied based on how she was feeling. Having low cortisol levels made things challenging and exhausting, but her body eventually adapted. She kept plugging on and made her way to set a record.

Create Your Resilience

Kiko says, “If you take all the experiences you’ve had in your life, you can become strong.” You don’t have to go find yourself or embark on something out of the ordinary, resilience is created from all of your experiences put together.

Kiko’s life experiences are what made her strong enough to believe she could embark on a record-setting challenge. She didn’t do any courses or read any books, she was just confident enough to think she could do it. Kiko believes that when life sends you challenges, they are only there to make you stronger. If you see them as stepping stones, anything you face can be seen as positive.


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