In 1993, aged just 21, keen climber and runner Karen Darke fell ten metres off a cliff, leaving her paralysed from the chest down… later that year, she completed the Great North Run.
Three years ago, Karen was named Cosmo’s Fearless Woman of the Year before being awarded the Vitalise Woman of Achievement Award in 2010, and it’s not hard to see why. Far from letting her disability hold her back, since her accident, Karen has been to places most of us have only dreamed of.
Her numerous expeditions include crossing through the Himalayas by hand bike, which raised over £12,000 for charity, and sea kayaking 1200 miles of the Canada/Alaska coastline. As well as a month long traverse in -40°c conditions across the Greenland ice cap, made even more remarkable by the fact that her paralysis prevents her from being able to regulate her body temperature. That’s all on top of completing her PHD in geology.
Her most recent venture is slightly closer to home, however, as she gets set to make her Paralympic debut at the 2012 Games, in two road cycling events. Sportsister caught up with Karen, to find out how she’s feeling about her latest challenge.
“It feels like everything I’ve been working for, for the last four years is suddenly here,” she says. “It’s a funny one, you’re kind of ready for it because you’ve been waiting for so long, yet another part of you thinks ‘will I ever be ready for it’?
“You have the training programme and it usually runs in four to six week cycles but we’ve only got the one cycle now so that kind of brings it home that this is the final one before the Games.”
Karen’s interest in competitive paracycling increased after watching the Beijing Paralympics on TV four years ago. The following year, she competed in the Paracycling World Cup and took home a bronze medal, before she joined the British Paracycling team in 2010.
“This is my first Games so I’m not quite sure what to expect and how it’ll feel but it’ll be amazing just to be in the UK. I haven’t got anything to compare it to but part of what inspired me to go for it was the fact that it’s a home Games”.
“The time trial is really what I’ve been working on. They’ve changed the road race now so that all the women are grouped together regardless of what class of disability they have. Whereas in the time trial I’ll be competing against women who are more similar to me in terms of disability so I just feel like the time trial is more of a fair competition”.
Paracycling is by no means Karen’s only interest. Having completed a half Ironman in 2007, last year Karen became British Paratriathlon Champion. So has she considered competing in any other Paralympic events in the future?
“Nothing other than cycling has ever really interested me, that’s why I’d never really thought about competing in the Paralympics before.
“They’ve just approved the Paratriathlon for the next Games though and I’m going to the Paratriathlon World Championships in New Zealand in October so I might dip my toe in the water there and see how I get on”.
Aside from the physical obstacles that have accompanied Karen’s expeditions, she has also pushed herself to the limit mentally. In 2007, she successfully conquered her fear of heights when she climbed the kilometre high precipice El Capitan in the USA. With all of these incredible achievements under her belt, how does she think the Paralympics will compare?
“I think actually I’m really proud of the Paralympics because it’s so unlike anything I’ve done before. You don’t know whether you’re going to qualify for a long time. You train for four years and then the actual event takes place in such a short space of time. Compared with anything else I’ve done, it’s very different.”
Karen has also used her personal experiences to found a leadership coaching and development company. ‘Inspire and Impact’ aims to create a positive impact in the lives, health and work of others.
Karen will compete in the Women’s Individual H1-2 Time Trial on Wednesday September 5 and the Women’s Individual H1-3 Road Race on Friday September 7.
Sophia Smith, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine