Karen Darke SWOTY Interview
On Thursday, it will be a year since Karen Darke won Paralympic gold in the H1-3 cycling time trial. It was Britain’s 79th medal of the Rio Games, the culmination of four years’ hard graft after London, but Darke was always more likely to view it as a start.
Twelve months later, she’s about to fly to Canada for the third leg of Quest 79, her bid to complete nine significant handbike rides across seven continents before the next Paralympics. If she’s still a contender three years from now – by which time she’ll be 49 – Darke is prepared to put off Antarctica until after Tokyo, but otherwise it’s full steam ahead. It always has been, really.
Darke, who was born in Halifax but now lives in Inverness, was seven when she first scaled Ben Nevis. By the age of 20, she’d conquered Mount Blanc and the Matterhorn, and the following year she won the Swiss KIMM mountain marathon – back-to-back marathons either side of an overnight camp.
This hardwired spirit of adventure emerged unscathed, perhaps even fortified, from the accident in 1993 that saw her fall from a sea cliff and break her back. Darke was paralysed from the chest down and initially struggled with the most basic tasks, but adjusting to this new reality didn’t mean leaving her old self behind.
That same strength of personality has propelled her to amazing heights, both literal and otherwise: handcycling the length of Japan, sit-skiing across the Arctic icecap, kayaking from Vancouver to Alaska and climbing El Capitan in the Yosemite National Park. Somewhere along the way, she found time for the day job, elite cycling, and to become a two-time paratriathlon world champion.
“I don’t do what I do to win medals,” she says. “I do it for the experiences and because I love it. I’ll never stop competing and just stop. At some point my body will come into it and age will catch up, but hopefully I’ll be dead before then.”
Having flicked through her back catalogue, when she describes this next challenge as “pretty demanding” you can only be intrigued. The basic facts are 3,000km from Canada to Mexico, going at 80km-a-day. A friend will be alongside for moral support, but otherwise the ride is unsupported.
“We’ve only got three rest days in the whole trip, one every 10 days, so if anything goes wrong with our bikes or bodies, the pressure’s on. Every challenge has things that scare me, and with this one it’s the fact it’s probably the most consistent distance I’ve had to cover in a day, week-in, week-out. But when you book your flights, you have to set a timescale and get on with it.”
Quest 79 will later feature a 1500km spin along the Ganges, 2500km beside the Murray River from source to sea in Australia, and two lots of 1250km, one in Africa and another along the coast from the UK to Spain. Then it will be Antarctica. Darke is encouraging members of the public to embark on their own challenges, all with the aim of raising funds for the Spinal Injuries Association.
Twenty minutes in, she casually mentions the health problems that beset her summer and threatened her hopes of representing Scotland in paratriathlon at next year’s Commonwealth Games.
“It’s really gross, actually,” she says. “I had a pelvic abscess. I had one a year before Rio too, and that one was 20cm, full of infection. Being paralysed, I didn’t know it was there until it was basically poisoning me.
“I caught it a little bit sooner this time and had some surgery. I push so hard, and sometimes it’s like this is my body rebelling against it, saying ‘I’m flooring you, because I need some downtime.’”
Fat chance. A week after leaving hospital, Darke was off to the paratriathlon European championships where she finished third. At the World Cup the following month, she took gold.
“It looks like I’ve just about managed to qualify for the Commonwealth Games, although quite how I’m not sure. Really, my heart is with the bike; I don’t much like swimming or running, but I thought I’d try because I really want to compete for Scotland.
“To train all three sports and get some rest and recovery, I’m not quite sure how you do that, especially when you’re using your arms all the time. My local triathlon club say, ‘When your arms are tired you go running, and when your legs are tired you go swimming.’ I’m like, ‘It doesn’t really work like that for me.’ It’s the same muscles all the time, and the same muscles just to survive in life as well.”
Darke has always been one to keep pushing.