• Phil Packer

Paralympic & World Championship Gold medallist and explorer, Dr Karen Darke MBE FRGS, supports BRIT

We are delighted that Karen is part of our BRIT Ambassador family and championing the annual BRIT Challenge to support and improve young adult and student mental health and fitness throughout the UK.

Karen is a Paralympic and World Championship Gold medallist, multiple Para-Cycling World Cup medallist and Para-Cycling Road World Championship medallist. Karen is also a Guinness World Record holder for land-speed by arm power and an explorer; she has skied across icecaps, kayaked at extreme latitudes of the planet, and hand-cycled across the world’s biggest mountain ranges and alongside some of the longest rivers.


In 2022, Karen is teaming up with Polar Academy graduate Iona Somerville with a vision of creating the POLE OF POSSIBILITY in Antarctica. Their expedition will be a World and Guinness Record and a World First for a female to sit-ski to the South Pole. Please read below for more details of this extraordinary adventure and how Iona’s own journey of low-confidence and then post-traumatic stress following her experience at the Arianne Grande bombing in Manchester has taken her on a deep inner journey. Her recovery, through immersion in team, exercise and nature, parallels Karen's process of becoming paralysed at age 21 and the stack of physical and emotional traumas since then.

Dr Karen Darke MBE FRGS - Paralympic and World Championship Gold medallist

“With a deep understanding of how trauma, stress and life events can lead to fear, pain and dis-ease, I have a passion for helping others transform, move beyond perceived limitations and consider possibility. Ability is a state of mind not body: through my own journey, I have discovered the incredible power we have within us to change our thoughts, our emotions, and our energy. We can all learn to be our own alchemist, to transform unwanted emotions or experiences into gold, be creators of our reality and in doing so improve our performance, our wellbeing, and the world around us. Having been a student, supporting charities as an Ambassador and Patron, and training and competing alongside young athletes, I know that there are vast number of young adults and students who are living with mental health challenges. I commend BRIT for their collaborative approach and their work to unite the Education, Sport and Charity sectors is inspiring. I have known BRIT’s Founder, Phil, for many years now and his vision resonates with me both personally and professionally; I am thrilled to be part of the BRIT Ambassador family to help support and improve young adult mental health and fitness throughout the UK.

I am delighted that BRIT have designed their annual BRIT Challenge to be inclusive so that students and staff of all abilities can take part in many different ways; by hand-cycling, cycling, wheelchair pushing, swimming, walking, jogging, running, rowing or paddling (canoeing, kayaking or paddle-boarding). It is rare to see such an inclusive UK-wide event and I hope that the annual BRIT Challenge will be embraced and supported by every UK university, college, specialist college and Students’ Union.

I look forward to encouraging students and staff at the University of Leeds, University of Aberdeen, University of Cumbria, the Open University, Sheffield Hallam University and Abertay University to take on the BRIT Challenge. I also urge my fellow Paralympians, adventurers and explorers to join our BRIT Ambassador family so that we can promote the BRIT Challenge at universities and colleges across the UK, destigmatise mental health and champion equality, diversity and inclusion.”

Dr Karen Darke MBE FRGS Olympic and World Championship Gold medallist and explorer

Dr Karen Darke MBE FRGS - Paralympic and World Championship Gold medallist

Karen graduated from the University of Leeds in 1992 with a degree in Chemistry and Geological Science. That same year, when she was 21, Karen sustained spinal cord injuries whilst sea cliff climbing, that resulted in paralysis below the waist.


In 1996, Karen completed her PhD in geology from the University of Aberdeen. That same year she hand-cycled across the Himalaya from Kazakhstan to Pakistan.


Karen completed her Master of Arts in Development Training and diplomas in Performance Coaching and traditional Chinese medicine from the University of Cumbria.


She has also completed a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Spanish with the Open University and a Master of Arts in Sports Psychology and High Performance Coaching at UNISPORT (Barcelona).


Karen has been awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Aberdeen, University of Leeds, University of Cumbria, Sheffield Hallam University and Abertay University, in recognition of her accomplishments and contributions in adventure and sport.


In 2002, Karen was part of a team who spent 10 weeks sea kayaking from Canada to Alaska.


In 2005 (and 2018), Karen hand-cycled through the Indian Himalaya and in 2006, she took part in an expedition which crossed Greenland’s ice cap whilst sitting on skis, using her arms and poles to cover the 372-mile crossing.

Dr Karen Darke MBE FRGS - Paralympic and World Championship Gold medallist and Explorer

Karen has also climbed Mont Blanc, Matterhorn and El Capitan and hand-cycled, skied and kayaked the length of Japan.


In 2009, Karen won bronze in the Para-Cycling World Cup and in 2010, became a member of the British Para-Cycling team.


Karen won two silver medals in the Women’s H2 road race and time trial events at the 2011 Para-Cycling World Cup in Sydney, Australia.


At the 2012 London Summer Paralympic Games, Karen won silver in the Women’s road time trial H1-2. Two days later, Karen took part in the Women’s road race H1-3 competition. After crossing the finish line holding hands with teammate Rachel Morris, both in a time of 1:43:08, Rachel was awarded bronze and Karen awarded 4th place.


In October 2012, Karen competed in her first ITU Paratriathlon World Championships. She won gold in her TRI-1 classification.


Karen took silver at the 2014 UCI Para-Cycling Road World Championships in South Carolina in the H3 time trial, and then took bronze in the H1 road race. That same year, Karen hand-cycled across the Tibetan Plateau.


In 2016, Karen won gold in the Women’s time trial H1-3 at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Karen was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2017 New Year’s Honours List for services to sport.


Karen competed for Scotland at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, Australia, where she finished 4th.


In 2021, Karen joined Team UMIAQ to sail from Iceland to Greenland to; Raise awareness about the Arctic ice melt; Analyse water samples for micro-plastics; Test new materials containing captured CO2 and Learn about resilience of all-female teams. Karen joined;

  • Felicity Aston MBE - First women to cross Antarctic Solo @felicity_aston

  • Joan Mulloy - Training to be first Irish women to complete the Vendee globe yacht race @Joan_M_Racing

  • Sophia Scott - Documentary filmmaker & co-founder high performance camera bag company@GROUNDTRUTHGear

  • Anjuli Pandit - Sustainability manager and green finance guru @anjuli928

  • Emma Wolstenholme - ex-RAF officer training to row solo unsupported across the Atlantic @RAF_Emma

  • Sarisher Mann - Sustainable finance expert @Sarisher_Mann and circular economy advocate @BNPParibasUK

  • Mads St Clair - Marine biologist, scuba expert, drone pilot & photographer @mads_ocean

More recently, Karen has been trekking the West Highland Way in place of Martin Hibbert, Trustee of the Spinal Injuries Foundation, to help his Kilimanjaro team train with a Mountain Trike.

Karen is a learning & development specialist turned mindset-heartset coach, explorer, athlete, speaker and author. Her purpose is about helping individuals and organisations ‘Find Inner Gold’: turning challenge into opportunity, turning ‘mud’ into ‘gold’. Karen started out as a geologist researching gold in the Bolivian Andes, but the life-changing accident that left her paralysed led her away from being a ‘rock-doctor’ to winning Paralympic gold in the sport of Paralympic hand-cycling in Rio 2016. It was the 79th medal for Britain, and 79 being the elemental number for Gold, led to Karen creating Quest 79.


The Quest 79 project has Karen cycling 7 continents in 9 iconic rides, raising £79K for Spinal Injuries and encouraging many people to step out of their comfort zones and discover passion, purpose, strength and other aspects of their ‘inner gold’.


Karen has teamed up with Polar Academy graduate Iona Somerville with a vision of creating the POLE OF POSSIBILITY in Antarctica, 2022. Their mission is to explore and share the advantages of adversity. Their personal stories illustrate that through the toughest events of life surprising things become possible. Pertinent to current interest in emotional health and mental wellbeing, the pair are excited to explore how nature and adventure help us heal and be our healthiest, happiest selves.


Iona’s own journey of low-confidence and then post-traumatic stress following her experience at the Arianne Grande bombing in Manchester has taken her on a deep inner journey. Her recovery through immersion in team, exercise and nature parallels Karen's process of becoming paralysed at age 21 and the stack of physical and emotional traumas since then. Our natural world and outdoor adventure has huge curative power.

Their journey, beginning at the end of 2022, will happen to be a World and Guinness Record, and a World First for a female to sit-ski to the South Pole. It is one of the toughest journeys they could invent: 250km of frozen plateau at over 3000 metres to the Pole. Their journey into the Antarctic will be the perfect laboratory for them to further explore the power of nature and adventure to enable resilience and recovery, sharing their learning and experience.


For more information about Karen and her Quest 79 project, including the 2022 Pole of Possibility Expedition, please visit her website.


Karen brings her passion for possibility, performance and post-traumatic growth to her role as an Ambassador, Patron & fundraiser for a range of charitable, not-for-profit organisations and others. These include;

You can follow Karen on Twitter and Instagram.