Karen Darke: My paralympic experiment

karen darke women's cycling

Karen Darke fell off a cliff and became paralysed from the chest down at the age of 21, but has proved that anything is possible, including gold at the Paralympic games in Rio. In this extract from her book, Quest 79, she shares the positive psychology tips that helped her get there...

I began by calling it an ‘experiment.’ Somehow, that seemed less threatening because an experiment doesn’t have a right or wrong outcome. It’s just a well-designed test to see what happens. If I committed, focused, and trained hard, could I be part of the London 2012 cycling team? 

I didn’t tell anyone about my idea at first. I kept it a secret because, if I shared it, I would have to later explain why I never did it. I didn’t want that pressure. I started training more than ever before, and along with that came a big mix of emotions: excitement about what might be possible combined with fear about failing after all the hard work; belief that I could do it; utter self doubt and certainty that I was pursuing something far-fetched and impossible. 


Being paralysed for nearly two decades has taught me plenty about using my mind to overcome challenges, but the ‘Olympic Experiment’ would teach me even more.

As I worked through the list of ‘buts’: doubts, concerns and thoughts that entered my head, and the emotions that came with them, I reminded myself of some things I have come to believe. These things helped me enter into my ‘experiment’ whole-heartedly. 

But am I ready to make this commitment? It will mean lots of changes... 

This could be a great journey into new things. Change is inevitable anyway. Nothing ever stays the same. I have to learn to live and thrive through change.

But is this just a crazy idea? It seems impossible... 

It’s an inspired idea. Inspiration is the fuel of all ideas. Inspiration is just a thought that might be sparked by an encounter, a moment, a beautiful sight, or from something within us… but it is true and real and who are we to ignore it? If an idea comes to us, no matter how far-fetched our logical mind may find it. Remember not to judge it or dismiss it because everything that surrounds us in the world began with an inspired moment. Don’t ignore the idea, but act on it. 

But I’m afraid of putting in all the work and getting nowhere. I’m also afraid of where it might lead and what that will mean... 

If we are stretching ourselves in new ways so we can learn and grow in life, then feeling scared, worried or anxious about the future is normal and can also be helpful. Fear is not to be feared, and we can use it to remind us to prepare well and thoroughly so that we have more chance of succeeding. 

But what if I sacrifice lots of things and don’t succeed? I’ll have wasted my own and other people’s time. 

If we haven’t failed, we haven’t tried hard enough. It is only through falling down in life that we learn, so that we can climb higher the next time. Instead of seeing failure as failure we must see it as important learning, which gives us powerful insights and tools to help us in the future. Trying is never a waste of anyone’s time. 

But how will I ever succeed?

If we commit to something, work hard, think creatively and keep trying, then we will inevitably succeed in some way... Success is short-lived, though, because, by the nature of being human, we will inevitably find another mountain to climb; and, by the nature of the world, nothing stays the same. One summit leads to another mountain range, and the whole landscape is constantly changing and reshaping as the forces of nature work away. 

Of course, I underestimated what it would take for the experiment to be successful, but underestimation, such a characteristically human flaw, is also the most vital tool for the rookie adventurer. Perhaps, without it, the overwhelming enormity of life could induce true paralysis. Without it, we may never embark on many things in life and may never change. 

Sports psychologists might argue that the mind is at least as important as physical condition when it comes to performing to your best. The same is true for any challenge in life, not just in sport. Your mind is your greatest super-power. 

Buy your copy of Quest 79 at: karendarke.com. All proceeds from the sale of the book go to fundraising for the Spinal Injuries Association

Photographs: Copyright on Edition 2016©

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