Paralympics - hand cycling: Karen Darke interview

Karen Darke in training for Paralympics 2012 in the Highlands.

Karen Darke in training for Paralympics 2012 in the Highlands.

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Whether it be skiing across Greenland or hand-biking the length of Japan, Karen Darke has taken on some sizeable tasks since her Leeds university days.

Yet in her own words now comes the biggest challenge of all – to conquer the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Darke, paralysed in a 10-metre climbing fall in 1993, has refused to let the accident get the better of her adventurous side.

Indeed – since her 1993 nightmare – the Halifax-born sporting star has built up an impressive list of achievements including completing the London Marathon, circumnavigating Corsica by sea, climbing El Capitan in the US and even biking over the Himalayas.

Through hand cycling, it is on her bike where Darke is at her happiest and the introduction of hand cycling into the Paralympics in 2008 was only ever going to lead to one thing.

The former University of Leeds student admits she was inspired by watching the Beijing Games and four years on her own Paralympic quest begins next Wednesday.

Explaining her transition from explorer to Paralympian, Darke told LS1: “I watched Beijing and I’d thought before about whether I’d be interested in a Paralympic sport.

“But there was actually no sport that interested me and there wasn’t a sport that I could really commit wholeheartedly to until I realised that hand-cycling was in Beijing for the first time.

“I just thought, ‘well, I love riding’ and then there was the fact that it was the home Games.

“I’m not sure that I would have gone for it if it hadn’t been a home games.

“There was something about it that just made me think it would be amazing.

“I thought it would be a great excuse to ride my bike more and I thought maybe I could get to London which has now happened!”

Darke finally joined the British para-cycling team in 2010 and unsurprisingly two years later the 41-year-old was earning a GB Paralympic call.

A woman who has conquered the Himalayas and El Capitan was never likely to fall short in her bid for Paralympic selection but Darke insists training for the London Games has been her biggest challenge yet.

“I thought I was fit four years ago but now I realise what fit really is!” said Darke, who now lives in Inverness.

“It’s been quite a tough realisation that the adventures would have to fall by the wayside because I definitely miss a bit of wilderness and adventure.

“But it’s been a journey of a different kind really and one that I was committed to when I got on the squad with British Cycling.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete at a home games and I thought that I had to do it.”

Darke now has two chances to shine at the Paralympics – in the women’s H1-2 Time Trial next Wednesday and the women’s H1-3 Road Race next Friday.

Darke says that by far her biggest chance of a medal will come in the former where she will be competing against athletes with similar disabilities – unlike in the road race.

But a problem could then arise afterwards with Darke admitting there would be a few potential destinations for a golden post box!

“I was born in Halifax and then I grew up in Mytholmroyd which is a village near Hebden Bridge,” she said.

“I moved to Leeds when I was 18 as a student to do my degree and then I left Yorkshire for Scotland and I was in Scotland the whole time until I met my partner – Andy Kirkpatrick –- who is also an explorer and who is based in Sheffield. “I ended up becoming Scottish/Yorkshire again!

“I originally moved to Scotland because I went to Aberdeen to do a PHD in geology and I ended up staying there.

“My main home is still in Inverness but there was a bit of an issue that came up where they said what if she did win a gold medal, where would you have your postbox?

“I was like I don’t know because my home town is in Inverness but if it came down to it then it would probably have to be in Mytholmroyd!

“My heart definitely likes to be in Scotland because it’s quiet and peaceful and away from the crowd kind of thing.

“But Yorkshire is in my blood. I grew up there.”

Reflecting on her time at the University of Leeds, Darke added: “I was pretty young when I was at Leeds but I had a fun time and an active time.

“I was in the university climbing club as well as the orienteering club so most weekends were spent heading out in a mini bus on a student adventure somewhere.

“It’s been good to be back in the city and I did a talk to Leeds University a few months ago – it was really nice.

“I don’t think I’d been back on campus for 20 years so that was kind of weird!”

Not that Darke hasn’t had her low points – the Paralympic athlete admitting that the death of close friend Will Ramsbottom transformed her attitude following her climbing accident in 1993.

“It was tough at the beginning and there were quite a few months where you were stuck in hospital and thinking what am I going to do now,” she said.

“But a very close friend of mine, Will Ramsbottom – who I met at Leeds University – died in a car accident three months after my accident and I think that was a big kick up the backside for me. It made me think, okay, he’s dead, I’m not, I’ve got to make the most of what I do.”

* Darke is releasing a book about her amazing story called Boundless. For more details and for pre-orders visit: www.karendarke.com/boundless

The Browlee brothers Jonathan (left) and Alistair at the start of the work  on a �5m University of Leeds sports development that will enhance facilities for cycling and triathlon in the region.

State-of-the-art Leeds triathlon base named after Brownlee brothers