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Karen Darke, Adventurer and Paralympian: A Thirst for Adventure

By Tristan Parker

Paralympic athlete and adventurer Karen Darke has always been a keen sports and outdoor enthusiast. At the age of 21 she became paralysed from the chest down after a climbing accident, but this did nothing to quell her passion for adventure. Over the coming years she undertook numerous intrepid – and often dangerous – trips across the globe before training for the 2012 Paralympic Games, where she competed as a member of the British Cycling Team.

Darke took part in several handcycling events at the London Games, including the road race over 48km (where she captured the headlines by crossing the finish line hand-in-hand with British team-mate Rachel Morris) and the road time trial over 16km, in which she earned a silver medal. Recently, she has supported Go ON Gold, a national campaign to raise awareness of the importance of access to technology by disabled people. Tristan Parker (TP) caught up with her (no mean feat) to ask her about her life, plans and greatest achievements:

TP: Please give us some background information on yourself, and how you became interested in sports.

KD: I started into outdoor sports when I was at school. Climbing, caving, running, etc. This carried on with walking holidays with my parents, a youth expedition when I was 17, and mountain biking.

TP: Did your accident at 21-years-old change your outlook on life and how you wanted to approach sporting achievements?

KD: I don’t think so. I was already keen on sport and the outdoors so that didn’t change, but I was lucky to have a circle of friends who enjoyed those activities and were willing to help me find new ways to do them. A close friend died in a climbing accident only a few months after my own accident and that had an impact on me – it made me think about what I could do instead of what I couldn’t.

TP: In the 2012 Paralympics you represented Great Britain in handcycling, but you also take part in many other activities and sports – is cycling something that you have a particular affinity with?

KD: Yes, I’ve always been a keen cyclist, though before my accident I preferred not to be on the roads, but on a mountain bike (now a really old-fashioned one without suspension!). Really, though, I just enjoy anything that takes you into the outdoors, but particularly where you get to be in a different position from sat in a wheelchair, feeling the wind in your hair, your lungs working… You get the idea.

TP: Do you use any kinds of technology on a regular basis?

KD: A Mac laptop, iPhone and internet connectivity all the time. It’s kind of central to my work and life now.

TP: Has technology made living with a disability any easier for you?

KD: Not IT particularly, though it perhaps opens more areas of work up, given that you don’t have to be able to walk to use technology.

TP: What kinds of barriers do you think that people with disabilities face in accessing and using technology and getting online? What could be done to remove these barriers?

KD: Cost would be a barrier to some, and hassle of getting set up. Maybe also the support to use equipment. I would love to use more than I do on my laptop – make movies, etc, but lack of time and know-how prevent me. Perhaps having access to an IT buddy would be good – though I’m sure it would be good for everybody, regardless of disability.

TP: And what kinds of benefits can technology access and getting online bring
to people with disabilities?

KD: It does help being able to access information, online forums and websites so easily. I can get whatever information is available about equipment developments, opinions, etc, in an instant. When I was first injured, computers weren’t so common, and accessing information was harder. IT is a great way of connecting up a minority group, e.g. into sport and with a disability.

TP: What would you say have been your greatest or most significant achievements over the years?

KD:
– Staying positive.
- Training for the Paralympics and committing 100% to it – and being fitter than ever at age 41.
- Overcoming barriers and challenges with groups of friends to complete some amazing journeys (sea kayaking from Canada to Alaska, skiing across Greenland…)

TP: How did it feel to win a medal at the 2012 Paralympics?

KD: Relief. I worked really hard for it and gave it 100 per cent and more for the two years prior, so it was a relief that the hard work paid off and brought a medal home. Shame it wasn’t a Gold one, but it’s also good to have goals to chase! It’s very special having the medal though, mainly because children love it, so I love sharing it with them – seeing their faces light up and hearing about their goals and aspirations.

TP: What do you have planned for the future? And are you hoping to take part in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games?

KD: I’m staying on the cycling squad. I’m also dabbling in paratriathlon, as I was out at the World Championships in New Zealand in October, and ended up winning. I enjoy the variety with swimming and wheelchair racing as it’s been pretty dedicated cycling, cycling, cycling for a while! However, my main commitment is still to the bike, and I’m on the British Cycling squad going forward with a view to Rio. But in 2013 we hope to ‘snow-bike’ from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole, and raise a big chunk of money for Back Up (a charity that transforms lives after spinal cord injury). The website is www.poleofpossibility.com. We need a nice corporate sponsor to make it happen, but in the meantime we’re on a training trip to Norway in January.

NOTE: This interview first appeared on Go ON Gold, the national campaign to raise awareness of the barriers faced by disabled and elderly people in accessing technology. E-Access Bulletin is the campaign’s official publication. To find out more about how you can help, visit:
http://www.go-on-gold.co.uk/ .

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