Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women who are making a difference to society. This week, we meet Kiko Matthews, who recently became the fastest woman ever to row solo across the Atlantic – just months after having neurosurgery.
A little over a month ago, Kiko Matthews arrived in Barbados. She had been at sea for 50 days, and had just become the fastest woman ever to row solo across the Atlantic.
It would be an awe-inspiring triumph by anyone’s standards. But breaking the iconic rowing record was an even more remarkable victory for a woman who had recently recovered from brain surgery. To make things even more impressive, Matthews’ trip across the Atlantic raised more than £100,000 for the hospital that had treated her – and before embarking on this voyage, she’d never rowed before in her life.
When Stylist catches up with Matthews, it’s the fundraising element of the journey that she speaks of with most pride. She is cheerfully sanguine, almost offhand, about the intense physical and psychological challenges of spending almost two months alone on the ocean: “It was very easy. Literally, all I had to do was rent a boat, sit in it, row, and get from A to B… I’m more proud of the fact that I raised £100,000 for King’s [College Hospital in London] than the actual rowing itself.”
A former science teacher, Matthews, now 37, was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease in 2009. The extremely rare condition affects the pituitary gland, resulting in an overproduction of the hormone cortisol, and can cause high blood pressure and depression. It’s so rare that Matthews’ father, a GP, didn’t consider the possibility that she might have it, even though she had developed many of the symptoms: more body hair than usual, strangely skinny legs, stopped periods, insomnia, spots, a puffy stomach.
“My mum was the one who thought I might have it, because she’d looked it up on the internet,” Matthews laughs. “My dad was like, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. She won’t have Cushing’s; no one has Cushing’s!’”
But Matthews did have Cushing’s, and would go on to develop diabetes, memory loss, psychosis, osteoporosis and two tumours on her pituitary gland as a result of the disease. After a spell in intensive care in 2014, she decided to leave her job at a school to focus on what really made her happy: spending time around nature, and physically challenging herself.
“After I’d recovered, I didn’t really connect with the structure and the rigidity of teaching,” she explains. “I still really wanted to help and educate people, but there are massive benefits to being outdoors, and I wanted more of a purpose in life. Not that teaching’s not purposeful, but it didn’t suit me – and when life is so short, I didn’t want to be stuck doing something I didn’t love.”
After leaving teaching, Matthews set up a charity and a paddle-boarding business. At the end of 2016, she decided that she needed another test - and settled on rowing the Atlantic, naturally. “I was like, ‘What can I do that’s adventurous and challenging?’”
She’d never rowed before in her life, but a couple of her male friends had crossed the Atlantic – and having seen others do it meant that it was in her “field of things that are possible”. Training for the voyage sounds to have been a blissfully happy time.
“Life was amazing, it was just wicked,” she enthuses. “I was getting up really early, I was overtaking men on my bike because I was so strong, I was pulling record times on the rowing machines as a non-rower. As one of my mates put it, I was just ‘fit, strong and mental’.”
But several months into her training, Matthews started to feel strange again. She was diagnosed with a second tumour on her pituitary gland in the summer of 2017, and had an operation to remove it in August. She is remarkably, perhaps not entirely sincerely, laidback when talking about what must have been a scary time.
“I cycled to my operation, had my brain tumour removed, and three days later I was out and back on it with training,” she says. “Obviously I needed to take it reasonably easy, but there was no stopping me.”
Matthews set off to cross the Atlantic in January this year. While the thought of being surrounded by endless ocean would be terrifying to many, Matthews is characteristically breezy. In her opinion, traversing a huge expanse of water was actually easier than doing an equivalent trip on land.
“Being alone on the water almost works in your favour: because there’s nothing else around, you’ve got no reason to get off,” she says. “Whereas if you’re cycling around the world, you’ve got excuses to stop, because you’ve got nice things to see and do.”
There were points on the journey where her Cushing’s symptoms kicked in, and it wasn’t always easy. At times, she felt so exhausted that she didn’t even have the energy to take her medication. But, she estimates, she was “happy-happy 90% of the time. And the other 10% I was thinking of things that made me happy, like mojitos and a nice clean bed.”
Neither was Matthews fazed by spending such a long period of time alone; in fact, she seems to have revelled in it. One of her favourite things was standing up on her boat and gazing at the water stretching out in every direction, as far as the eye could see.
“I loved looking around and just being like, how on earth have I ended up on this tiny boat on my own in the middle of the Atlantic, with no one for miles and miles? It was such a cool feeling.” Most of us, she points out, don’t have much experience of true solitude. “You know, I might have been at home on my own for two days, but there’s always been someone next door.”
Out on the Atlantic, however, “there were people closer to me in space than there were on land. I loved that.” She describes the strange mixture of feeling totally free from humdrum responsibilities, yet completely focused on the ultimate responsibility of keeping herself alive: “I had no work or emails or pressures in one sense, but at the same time I was so reliant on my little boat.”
Now that she’s back on dry land, Matthews is planning her next adventure. She’s cagey about what exactly it is, but she hints that “it will be based around the environment and plastics, it will have an active side to it, and it will be in the UK”.
It will also be more team-focused than her solitary adventure across the sea. “I’ve achieved something on my own which is great,” she says. “I think I’ve proved I can do crazy things. But really, if I’m true to myself, the thing I enjoy most is other people and a sense of community.”
Being true to oneself is important to Matthews. She hopes to inspire other women to prioritise their own happiness in life, and to encourage them to figure out what really fulfils them.
“I think there’s a lot of women, young and old, who feel pressure from the media about what we should look like and what we should be doing,” she says. “We should be having babies; we should marry a man; we should look pretty. But it’s never crossed my mind to do that: I just want to be who I am and do what makes me happy. And I think when we’re honest with who we are, everything grows around that.
“I want women to realise they are totally capable of doing anything a man can do, and not to worry about what they think they should be doing,” she continues. “I just rowed the Atlantic and I’m 37; I don’t have a boyfriend, I don’t have my own house, I don’t have a mega career. But I’m so happy.”
Images: Courtesy of Kiko Matthews