An Interview With Karen Darke
You have undertaken so many varied challenges, which one gave you the most personal satisfaction?
Although I don't often talk about it, I really enjoyed sea kayaking from Vancouver, Canada to Juneau, Alaska. It was 3 months living with the rhythms of the Pacific. I had to leave my wheelchair behind and was anxious about the possible lack of independence beforehand. But living at one with nature (sleeping on the beaches, paddling at night or early morning with the tides, eating salmon we caught etc.), being in the wilderness, adapting to the situation and working closely with the team was a very special and quite profound experience.
What is the most amazing place you have been too?
That's a difficult question as it really depends on what criteria I use to define amazing, and because I've been fortunate to experience many places. Last year I cycled through Tibet, from Lhasa to Kathmandu over the Himalayas. It was amazing for a few reasons. The Tibetan people were incredible. In Lhasa I was struck by their huge, bright smiles, their spiritual nature and a sense of open-heartedness that touched me deeply, especially considering the tough times they have experienced and the harsh environment they live in. To cycle towards Everest base-camp and up the valley towards the huge mass of Everest on my handbike and with a small group of friends was also incredibly special. But there are many places I could list for their natural beauty - the beaches of Scotland's Outer Hebrides, the Tramuntana Mountains of Mallorca. Ultimately though for me it's the people in a place and the people you share the experience with that make any place or experience feel amazing.
How do you think that your speech inspires people?
It's not my intention to do anything other than share my experiences with others, and I can't say what effect that has on each individual. However, many people say to me that they feel inspired or moved by the things I have done, particularly given that I'm paralysed. I think that inspiration is like fuel to our souls. Just like putting petrol in a car, inspiration gives us energy. It stirs emotion and gives us the 'fuel' to move forward in a new or braver way. So often I think we under-estimate what we are capable of. The night before the climbing accident that paralysed me, I said to friends "I'd rather be dead than paralysed. I can't imagine anything worse", yet 12 hours later when my nightmare happened, I had to adjust and find inner strength I didn't know I had. I think my circumstances and my adventurous experiences catalyse people to question 'could I do that?' or 'if she can do that, maybe I can do this...'. I think my story acts as a reminder of the strength of human spirit that is within us all. When I am struggling in life, I find that sort of inspiration from others. I believe we are a web of inspiration to each other.
How is your training for Rio 2016 going? Is it going to be gold this time?
Training is going well thanks. It's been a slightly turbulent 18 months due to some personal challenges combined with changes of coach. I was fourth in the World Championships this year which was lower than I'd hoped, though I rode well and was very close to the podium. However, I have a solid foundation now and the right team around me to go for Gold in Rio. I do believe it's possible, although the competition is stronger and deeper than ever so it is a big challenge. The course in Rio suits me though, as the time trial is a flat out and back along Copacabana beach which will work well to my strengths. Last year's motto for me was 'Never a dull moment' as the unexpected seemed to keep happening. This year though it's 'Anything is possible', and it's great to keep reminding ourselves of that. I believe if we focus on a goal, work hard, stay committed and have a good team then things that may at first seem 'impossible' become possible. I'm enjoying the journey and hope that the Gold will come as a result :)
What do you most enjoy about speaking to a corporate audience?
When I was younger I used to feel very shy and self-conscious to speak up in a group or present to an audience. If someone had told me than that I'd end up speaking to audiences of thousands, I never would have believed them, or I'd have run a mile. Now that it is part of my job, I find it a great privilege on many levels. I enjoy the process of having an intense experience, learning from it, and translating that to others through pictures and stories. Perhaps it is a form of modern-day non-fiction storytelling, and I enjoy that as an art in itself. But if a challenging experience from my life can help even one other person, then for me that is a privilege and makes the pain and struggle of overcoming something and learning from it seem very worthwhile.