SJA Sportsman of the Year: The case for Matthew Richards

VOTING HAS NOW CLOSED to decide the winners of three major categories at the Awards, to be held at The Kia Oval in London on Thursday 7 December; Jake Wightman, Beth Mead and the Lionesses claimed the equivalent 2022 honours; who will take the top prizes this year?

By Nathan Edwards

Matthew Richards may not be the most followed athlete or the biggest name in British sport, but the 20-year-old has been making waves in and out of the pool this year.

At the start of 2023 every swimmer aimed for a good showing at July’s World Championships in Fukuoka, which would lead to finding form ahead of the Paris Olympics in 2024.

Richards has done just that.

The 20-year-old stole the show in Japan, snatching the 200m freestyle title from defending champion David Popovici.

To beat the defending champion is impressive but to collect the gold medal with a personal best time of 1:44.30 shows the immeasurable talent he possesses.

It was a stacked final, which included Popovici and Olympic champion Tom Dean, who finished milliseconds behind his compatriot to take the silver medal.

Richards’ gold rush didn’t stop there as he, along with Dean, Duncan Scott and James Guy, won the 4x200m to take another top spot on the podium.

This form came at the right time for Richards and Team GB, who will look to carry it forward into Paris next year, after beating the reigning champions USA.

A third freestyle medal of the Championships was the less exciting colour of bronze, which came in the 4x100m mixed relay alongside Scott, Anna Hopkin and Freya Anderson.

But this victorious feeling isn’t an unusual one for Richards, who during his junior and senior career has made winning a comforting habit.

Throughout the history of sport, and time, there has been the story of the young, promising athlete steaming ahead of his competitors but failing to make the daunting transition to senior level.

Richards didn’t fail. In fact his entrance into swimming’s elite was astounding, as he featured in the formidable 4x200m team that won gold at the Tokyo Olympics.

His 2022 was a year of struggle and change, which included missing out on a medal spot at the Commonwealth Games, and switching training programs from Bath, one of the best swimming educations in the country, to Millfield School.

This decision was met with confusion, and doubt on whether Richards would meet his potential, but he snapped those thoughts in half by returning to the pool with vengeance in the backend of 2022 and 2023.

But Richards, despite his age, showed the world that winning isn’t just about physical ability in the pool, but also about risk-taking and mental fortitude shown away from the water.

Sports journalist Nathan Edwards is a member of the SJA Academy – find out more about membership here.