Our Freedoms are all Different. Our Prisons are all Different. Living Adventurously 63

Karen Darke is an adventurer and Paralympian handcyclist. It is fortunate that Karen has what she describes as “an adventurous gene”, as life in a wheelchair is full of the unexpected...

Karen Darke is an adventurer and Paralympian handcyclist. It is lucky that Karen has what she describes as “an adventurous gene”, as life in a wheelchair is full of the unexpected. Karen was a keen runner and climber (she had climbed Mt Blanc and the Matterhorn), but fell off a cliff and became paralysed from the chest down at age 21. Whilst initially she thought “I’d rather be dead than paralysed”, Karen soon learned that with friends, creativity and perseverence most things are still possible. She says, “it is thanks to those ingredients that I have a pretty extraordinary life.” 
Continuing her adventures, Karen has handbiked the Silk Road through Central Asia, through the Indian Himalaya from Leh to Manali and the length of Japan. She has kayaked the ‘Inside Passage’ from Vancouver to Alaska and also paddled on an expedition in Patagonia. Karen crossed Greenland's ice cap whilst sitting on skis using her arms and poles to cover the 372-mile crossing. She even returned to climbing, summiting the iconic El Capitan in Yosemite. 
Always eager to challenge herself, in 2009 Karen became World Paratriathlon Champion and is now a full-time athlete. She was a silver-medallist in the London 2012 Paralympics and became Paralympic Champion in the Rio 2016 Paralympics. At London 2012 Karen missed out on a second medal by a whisker. After crossing the finishing line holding hands with team mate Rachel Morris, both in a time of 1:43:08, Morris was awarded the bronze medal. Karen is currently training for her third Paralympic Games. 

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  • https://www.karendarke.com/
  • Perhaps I'm an expert in reframing things to see them in a positive light
  • I wouldn't choose to be paralysed, but my life has been special and interesting since then.
  • The one thing we always have control over is our perspective and how we view things.
  • I try to bring more possibility to life.
  • Aged 21 when a climbing accident paralysed her
  • The impact of realising the paralysis was about a month later when she saw other people in wheelchairs in hospital
  • I had a couple of weeks when being asleep was far more attractive than being awake
  • But there were people around her in a far worse condition. Her perspective shifted from "this is the end of the world" to "come on..."
  • Thought differently about herself after the accident - she was very judgemental about herself. Embarrassed to be in a wheelchair.
  • Her whole body image changed totally
  • Early on she realised that there are "helpful but over-helpful" people, and then other people who didn't know how to respond to her.
  • When you meet someone in a wheelchair: just be yourself. But don't launch in with personal questions straight away. "Do you need a hand?" is nice. Just be a nice human being.
  • At first it felt too painful to go back into the mountains so she considered totally changing her lifestyle. 
  • But what are the elements of being attracted to adventure? Uncertainty, nature, being with friends. She learned that it was possible to still get all those things.
  • She got a special tandem so that she could share adventure with people. She misses that "shared" side of adventure now she is a professional athlete.
  • Cats only have 7 lives in Spain, not 9
  • Not always good at mitigating risk!
  • I do actually quite like being alive...
  • Hard to say what is the 'best' adventure, because they are all different.
  • It's about the people, the landscapes, the lessons.
  • Spent a few months seakayaking up the coast of Alaska. Had to leave her wheelchair behind. Group of 9 people, living in harmony with the tides and moon, looking out for bears.
  • Suresh Paul - https://www.equaladventure.org/
  • "I wonder how good you could be if you just applied yourself to one thing"
  • I believe that if you put enough hours work in, if you like it enough to put the hours in, then we can all get surprisingly good at things.
  • Karen has won gold and silver medals in the Paralympic games
  • It's much easier to focus when there's a clear timescale
  • Every day makes a difference. Every thought makes a difference. The devil is in the detail.
  • My future self will be disappointed if I make excuses and skip things.
  • Karen and Rachel Morris crossed the line together, holding hands, at London 2012 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUeTQcbxl74
  • Who really cares who can ride a handbike faster? It's ridiculous. And yet it's also very special.
  • Rivals don't motivate me, but they inspire me.
  • One of my first races I came last - the finish line didn't even exist by the time I got there! They'd all packed up.
  • Alongside the physical challenge of paralysis, there was also a mental journey. Karen went to study Chinese acupuncture.
  • There is an invisible, hard to define element to life. Connecting with nature is a part of that.
  • I'm not into stuckness. Everything is possible.
  • Before Rio she bought gold shoes and a gold phone case - total commitment to Gold. It shifted her mindset.
  • Feeling free does not necessarily equate to being able to go to physical places. There are many levels to freedom.
  • Our freedoms are all different. Our prisons are all different.
  • Karen's thoughts on freedom - https://www.karendarke.com/inner-gold-4-freedom/
  • The cost of equipment is a barrier to entry for disabled adventure.
  • Having encouragement and support to get into adventures is great for disabled people.
  • Cycling UK - inclusive cycling - https://www.cyclinguk.org/
  • Handbikes cost several thousand pounds
  • Back Up Trust: https://www.backuptrust.org.uk/
  • Spinal Injuries Association: https://www.spinal.co.uk/
  • Calvert Trust: http://www.calvert-trust.org.uk/
  • The opportunities exist, you just have to be proactive and find them
  • Network Spinal Analysis: https://mynsa.info/
  • If you could change one thing in your life: I would like to walk up a hill again and see the view (and do it with someone I was in love with)
  • If I was a millionaire I'd be far more stressed
  • Jeff Bezos earned $13 billion in a day. See his wealth, to scale, here.
  • I would not want to sacrifice being a good person for ambition.

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© 2019 Alastair Humphreys