Every day is a school day for Karen Darke – and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Inverness para-triathlete throws herself into new challenges not to be the best at them or to win things, but to experience as many facets of life as she can.
The Commonwealth Games fits into that bracket. Para-triathlon makes its debut in the Gold Coast tomorrow and competitors will complete a 750-metre swim, followed by 25km hand-cycling and a 5km wheelchair sprint.
Hand-cycling is old hat to Darke, who is the 2016 Paralympic champion in the time-trial discipline. Swimming, however, has taken a bit of mastering.
She said: “I’m trying to adopt a new strategy of less is more. I’d only been swimming five times by the middle of February but my times had somehow got quicker. I’m never going to feel too great about it but I’ve been making progress.”
Darke, 46, has encountered her fair share of challenges. Aged 21, she became paralysed from the chest down after a climbing accident. It failed to deter her adventurous side – from handbiking across the Himalayas, climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park to crossing the icy wilderness of Greenland.
But adaptation has been at the forefront of her Gold Coast preparation. A torn tendon in her shoulder, coupled with a burn sustained while trying to remedy that injury, severely limited her swimming time. A post on her blog at the start of February shed some light into her change in mindset, prompting her to lend a more understanding ear to what her body was telling her.
She added: “I’ve had a lot of physical setbacks that have put questions in my mind. It’s challenging to keep going, or if you’re just doing damage to yourself. I don’t know if we ever get answers, or if we just tune in to what’s happening and not force body and soul into doing something it’s not on board with.”
Being an adventurer is in her blood. The latest conquest was the 3,000km trek from Vancouver in south-west Canada down to Mexico, a vivid and enlightening experience that forms a wider part of her Quest 79 project, a series of challenges that will take her across all seven continents by the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Next on the agenda, post-Gold Coast, is The Water Way, which will follow the Murray River, in the Australian Alps, 2500km from source to sea.
Getting on a bike is much more than just sport to Darke, originally from Halifax. It is an opportunity for broadening her horizons.
Darke said: “I love learning stuff – life is a massive playground. It does get me down sometimes when it’s tough but I always look at what I’m learning from it and how I can do things differently.
“Some people live to compete and are desperate to win medals, without necessarily being passionate about their sport. I love riding my bike. Competing? Maybe not so much. But the Games bring so many people together, so I can see that side of things too”
She accepts she will not be able to go on forever. Training in Mallorca over the winter months, an escape from the freezing conditions in Inverness, will eventually be wound down. Tokyo is still a goal and, of course, doing her adopted country proud.
Darke said: “I don’t know if I’ll know when to give up. I don’t want to get to the point where I fall out of love with something that keeps me fit; I would hand-cycle until I die if I could. I want to go with no pressure, do my job and enjoy it. I didn’t really enjoy Rio. But my laptop cover was gold in the build-up to Rio and I managed to win gold.
“I’ve lived in Scotland for most of my life and I have a great affinity for it. I would love to bring a medal home and hopefully I can do that.”
Darke goes in the para-triathlon at 12.30am GMT tomorrow.