Photo credit: Richard Shymanski
Naomi is a Londoner, she was born near the River Thames in Hammersmith Hospital and grew up in Harrow. Little did she know her life would be so connected with the great Thames.
At just 8 weeks old she was diagnosed with a rare eye condition call Cone Dystrophy, with no functioning cones on her retina she has no colour vision and is extremely light sensitive. She also has Nystagmus which makes it hard to focus, particularly on moving objects as her eyes are involuntarily and constantly moving.Her parents knew that from day one this would create many difficulties and challenges… but they did not realise that their little girl would never let her disability stand in her way.
During her years in mainstream school Naomi was severely bullied by her peers and singled out for being different which did nothing for her self – confidence; yet there was something inside that made her strive to achieve despite her visual impairment.
Sport at school did nothing for Naomi but outside school she was a very active child, bored easily and full of energy. Swimming was Naomi’s first sporting love and at the age of 12 she became National Disability Swimming Club Champion; after this she competed for 5 consecutive years at the London Youth Games. Being in the pool, she felt able to achieve, a feeling she never really had at school.
Despite her visual impairment, Naomi’s dream was to be an artist… working in black and white and using texture; she at last decided to study Jewellery and Silversmithing at Bucks New University in High Wycombe.
In the March of her second year, Naomi was offered the chance to trial for the Great Britain Adaptive Rowing Team. She seized the opportunity and just 4 months later, in August 2004, she became World Champion in Great Britain’s Mixed Coxed Four.
Over the next decade Adaptive rowing developed into a full time Lottery Funded Paralympic Sport (Para-Rowing), making its debut at the 2008 Beijing Games. Naomi was at the heart of the Mixed Coxed Four and was key in the development of Para-Rowing over those 10 years, winning 6 World Championship Titles, a Bronze at the Beijing Games and a Gold in London; rowing to victory at Eton Dorney, Windsor.
Her rowing journey was by no means easy, she came up against all the challenges and trials of any elite sports person; however her ability to adapt and see the positives in the world around her, along with her determination to be at the top of her sport, kept her fighting.
At school I was known as the ‘the blind girl’ which was frustrating and hurtful. More than anything else in my life I wanted to be known as Naomi Riches and not be defined by my disability. I want to be known for what I am able to do, not what I cannot do.
After retiring from competitive rowing in 2013, Naomi has been using what she has learnt to motivate, inspire and enable others as well as seeking out new challenges. That determination and fighting spirit she developed at school has driven Naomi to her latest challenge – to attempt a new World Record as the fastest woman to row a single scull down the Thames… 165 miles, non-stop, from Lechlade to Gravesend.
Becoming Patron of IN-vision in 2014, gave Naomi the reason she was looking for to take on such a challenge. She has worked with a number of charities in this time but closest to her heart is IN-vision, which aims to raise awareness for and fund research into Nystagmus, which affects around 1 in 1000 – including Naomi.
Just because you may have something that you feel limits your abilities – doesn’t mean you cannot do amazing things. What has always been seen by others to limit me is my vision, but I have never let this stop me – I am determined to make people realise that no matter what we have to overcome as individuals, there is a lot we CAN do.
The Great Thames Row for Naomi is not just about that personal sense of achievement, it is about changing people’s perception of disability; to focus on, and celebrate ability.