Karen has kayaked through Alaska’s Inner Passage and cycled from Tibet to Nepal, in spite of paralysis from the chest down. After claiming silver in London she squeezed in (and filmed) an Iron Man contest as part of her build up to Rio, and then took gold in the Paralympics (despite losing a year’s training after being hit by a car). Karen shows how we can best understand ourselves and others by attempting challenges. The emotions they untap aren’t signs of weakness, they help us heal: “Listening to yourself and dealing with fear makes you stronger.”
Karen Darke was a keen runner and mountaineer. Then at the age of 21 she fell from a cliff and became paralysed from the chest down.
Determined not to let her condition get the better of her, Karen embarked on a series of testing adventures. Within four years of her accident she was hand-biking over the Himalayas, a 1200 mile trip. Since then all her exploits have focused on breaking down the barriers between disabled people and the outdoors.
Karen has crossed the Tien Shan and Karakoram mountains of Central Asia and the Japanese archipelago by hand bike. She has also sea kayaked a 1200 mile length of the Canada-Alaska coastline and skied the Valle Blanche. Perhaps her most impressive feat to date is her 600km traverse of Greenland’s ice cap, one of the last great wildernesses where winds reach 200mph and temperatures drop to –40C.
To add to this, Karen was selected for the London 2012 Para-cycling team despite only taking up the sport four years earlier. She started her campaign by winning two silver medals at the World Cup. She took silver in the Paralympics H1-2 time trial, and hoped to follow up with a medal in the road race. Neck and neck with her great friend and training colleague Rachel Morris for most of the race, the pair chose to cross the finish line hand-in-hand in an attempt to share the bronze. Although the authorities insisted it be awarded to Morris, the pair provided one of the enduring images of the games.
A year on from the London Games, Karen was involved in an accident, hit by a car whilst training. Unable to use her right arm for a year she was unsure whether she’d be able to continue her journey to the Rio Paralympics. Never one to be deterred, she got back on her para-cycle and went on to win gold in the H2-3 time trial.
Self-belief forms the basis of Karen’s work as a performance coach and motivational speaker: “If we can know ourselves better, we can explore our abilities and achieve all manner of things we may previously have thought impossible.” When we fall down, why do some of us pick ourselves up and carry on, whilst some do not?
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Karen’s achievements since her accident stretch from extreme adventure to elite sport. If the basic premise of a motivational speech is to inspire you to adapt to the situation and scale new heights, it never feels more real than when listening to Karen. She’s been though such a horrific chain of events, yet remains defiantly positive. It feels like a real privilege to hear her story. JLA Agent Allan Grant
JLA Speakers Breakfast