The XV Paralympic Games open in Rio today and run until September 18. In The Mixed Zone’s final article in our Road to Rio series, Susan Egelstaff talks to Karen Darke about her hopes of improving on the silver medal she won in the para-cycling at London 2012
When Karen Darke was first told that she would never walk again, she was on so many drugs that she didn’t fully absorb the information. It wasn’t until a month later, when she had been moved out of intensive care in Aberdeen and down to a spinal unit in Yorkshire, that the severity of her accident began to sink in. It was, she admits, a tough time.
“When I stopped taking as many of the drugs as I’d been on to get me through the pain, I became a lot more with it and reality began to hit me,” the 45 year old says. “It’s very tough to get your head around that you’re never going to walk again.”
As a teenager, Darke realised she had a passion for climbing. By the time she was in her early twenties she had climbed Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, as well as winning the Swiss Mountain Marathon. However, in 1993 Darke’s life changed forever when a climbing accident left her paralysed from the chest down. “I remember up until about five minutes before the accident, and then I was unconscious for about three days afterwards,” she says.
Being told that you will never walk again is an unimaginable situation. But even when she was still in hospital, Darke began imagining how she would be able to pursue the active lifestyle that had been such a huge part of her life before her accident. “The London Marathon was on television and I saw the wheelchair races and thought, ‘Ah, I could do that’,” she says. “That inspired me and I actually got a racing wheelchair before I got a normal wheelchair.
“It just went from there really. Because I’d always done outdoor sports, and my friends all did outdoor sports, I kept on doing those kind of things. It just meant that I had to find new ways of doing them.”
Darke certainly did not lose her appetite for adventure. In the years following her accident, she hand-cycled across Japan, kayaked the Alaska coastline and skied across Greenland. In 2009, though, Darke started racing on a hand-bike. The following year she was invited to join the British Para-Cycling Team, and just two years later she was making her Paralympic debut at London 2012. Darke performed admirably at her maiden Games, winning silver in the H 1-2 road time-trial. However, perhaps her most memorable moment was when she crossed the line in the H 1-3 road race hand-in-hand with her team-mate Rachel Morris. Both were given the same time, but Morris was awarded the bronze medal.
The intervening four years have not been plain sailing for Darke. In 2013, she suffered severe injuries after being hit by a car while out on a training ride and she lost the use of her right arm for several months. Then, at the tail-end of 2015, it was discovered that she had a pelvic abscess that measured 20cm and was full of infection. It drained her of energy, and with under a year until the Rio Paralympics Darke admits that she feared the worst. “I was in a pretty bad way – all of last November and December I couldn’t produce any power on the bike – and I thought, ‘That’s it, my dream is over, I won’t make it to Rio’. I tried not to get too stressed because I knew that I couldn’t do anything about it, but it was tough. When I started training again, I began gradually building things up, but it didn’t feel good being unable to push myself. I’ve had a lot of setbacks so it’s actually pretty amazing that I’m going to these Games.”
Darke travels to Rio with one focused aim: to win gold. The H3 time-trial is her strongest event and she believes that if she gets everything right on the day, gold is achievable. She has no illusions about how tough it will be, though. “The standard of the sport is improving all the time – the quality of the field at London 2012 in hand-cycling was really high, and there are a couple of athletes who have come in since then, so Rio will be extremely strong,” she says. “I think the course there will play to my strengths because it’s flat. I’ve also improved since London and I’m training harder than I’ve ever trained, so I’m feeling good.”
Darke knows she has considerable pressure on her to return home with a gold medal. She predicts that only a first-place finish will be sufficient to allow her to remain on the British Cycling programme – anything less and she believes she will be dropped. For many, that pressure would be too much to handle, but Darke is remarkably relaxed about what will happen over the next 11 days.
“In a way, my whole future depends on this,” she says. “But I’m actually not stressed about it because I know that I’ve done all I can. Whatever happens, happens. It’ll either work out or it won’t. I still get pre-race nerves, but I don’t tend to get too stressed out about it all.”
Judging by how Darke has reacted to challenging situations in the past, winning a gold medal in Rio is nothing more than another goal that’s there for the taking.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Egelstaff is an Olympic badminton player who competed at London 2012, as well as representing Scotland at three Commonwealth Games, winning two bronze medals. She retired in the aftermath of the London Games after a 12-year international career. Having written the occasional article for newspapers while still competing, she decided to try and make sports journalism a job. Susan is now a columnist and sports writer with The Herald, The Sunday Herald and The National and is a regular contributor on BBC Radio Scotland. Susan is also heavily involved with the Winning Scotland Foundation, a charity which helps children achieve their goals. Susan’s latest articles.