Karen Elisabeth Darke

Presentation address by Ms Suzanne Glavin 


Karen Darke is an inspirational Paralympian.  She has conquered the Tien Shan and Karokam mountains on a hand-cycle, sea-kayaked the Alaskan coast, and reached the podium at both the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. 

Karen was born in Calderdale, and was always a keen athlete with a strong sense of adventure.  Her early achievements included climbing Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, and she won the Swiss KIMM Mountain Marathon in 1992, the year she graduated from Leeds. 

In 1993, however, Karen fell while climbing and was paralysed from the chest down. 

She was determined not to let her accident define her and so she embarked on a series of testing adventures.  Her most physically challenging expedition was in 2006, when she spent a month sit-skiing across the Greenland ice cap.

She also hand-biked the length of Japan and, spurred on by the success of these expeditions, was encouraged to start racing on the hand bike. She joined the Great Britain Cycling Team in 2010, and achieved immediate success with a series of medals.  

Karen was selected to represent Great Britain in the 2012 London Paralympics, and won a silver medal in the time-trial.  She hoped to follow this up with a medal in the road race but, after being neck and neck for most of the race, she and her great friend, Rachel Morris, chose to cross the finish line hand in hand.  The photo finish gave Rachel third place, but the two together provided one of the enduring images of the games.   

One year on from the London Games, Karen was involved in an accident – she was hit by a car whist out training.  Unable to use her right arm for a year, she was unsure if she would be able to get to the 2016 Paralympics.  In the event, determination took her to Rio, where she won her first Paralympic gold. 

Karen was awarded an MBE in 2016 and works as a performance coach and motivational speaker.  Her words can be inspirational to us all:  “Someone once said to me, ‘Disability is a state of mind not a state of body’.  That’s a notion that relates to all of us, regardless of whether we have a physical disability or not.  … I’m constantly amazed by what can be achieved if we set our heart and mind to it.  It’s about finding belief, confidence, motivation and commitment.

And of course, friends. Then there are no limits”. 

Vice-Chancellor, I am delighted to present to you for the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa, Karen Darke.