Her ex-boyfriend convinced her to climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, and it took them about a week, sleeping on ledges along the way.
“It was a massive mental process, overcoming the fear and thinking of ways to control my mind and be able to get to a place where I could enjoy being there. But at the same time it was a rite of passage.”
As a Paralympian, cycling has always been her main sport, but during a biking trip in the Outer Hebrides, she came across a sea kayaking symposium.
“Before I knew it, I was involved in getting in a double sea kayak. It was an incredible day out, being in the ocean, that close to nature.”
Karen is not a water baby, but she really loved the connection she felt with nature, and soon enough she was hooked. She set up a group, organising sea kayaking activities for people with disabilities. While she had always travelled in a double kayak, not trusting her own strength, she came across fellow people living with paralysis who could use a single kayak. So she gave it a go too.
“I can get on well in a single kayak until a certain level of wind, about force 3 or 4, then I start to struggle, I can’t brace body enough to generate enough power.”
After making a mistake during a kayaking trip in Sweden where she had insufficient padding and developed pressure sores, Karen always makes sure her kayak is lined with foam and a thick layer of gel to prevent any issues. For those just starting out she suggests trying a range of different padding and gels on a short trip to see what works.
Like skiing, Karen has been on many kayaking adventures including a 3 month journey from Vancouver, Canada to Juno in Alaska. She left her wheelchair behind, spending her days paddling and sleeping on beaches.
“It was a really challenging journey to leave my wheelchair behind for that long, I nearly dropped out the week before, I was so freaked out at the prospect.”
It wasn’t really about needing the wheelchair, because the kayak provided her with movement and mobility, it was more about the moments are the start and end of every day where she suddenly became reliant on her team mates. But she soon realised by choosing to put herself in that environment she was inevitably going to lose some independence but in fact people love to help others.
“None of us can do everything, we all have to ask for help, it’s just intensified when you have a disability.”
Now Karen is recognised a professional athlete – something she says that was never a conscious choice, rather something that happened quite organically.