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Karen Darke, 2012 Paralympic Silver Medalist and Paratriathlon World Champion

A few days back from the World Championships and finally feeling human again (I have peeled myself off the sofa after 2 days feeling super-glued to it…) I’m reflecting on this year’s races and the year ahead to the Rio 2016 Paralympics. It seems only a short while ago since London 2012, but we’re almost there again. It’s the year that counts. The year when performance needs to skyrocket. The year when every nation and athlete are pursuing top form. We’re all chasing medals.

Paralympic sport is a business. Medals are the currency. Your future as an athlete hangs largely on one race – the Paralympic race. Medal and you’ll secure funding for the next 4 years, providing you continue to perform well over those years. The level of funding you can receive correlates almost exactly to the colour of your medal. If you don’t medal, it’s back to the drawing board – quit, or work harder, with less support from the national governing body, and juggle work with training. That’s if you are fortunate enough to be in a sport like cycling that has a track record of medals, and therefore funding. The staff dedicate endless hours and energy and live through it with their athletes (it’s a lifestyle not a job) and their future also hangs on performance. A less than predicted medal count means funding and therefore job opportunities will drop.

So performance is everything.

All year people have been saying to me “it isn’t your course this year. That big hill there’ll be in Switzerland, it’s not representative of Rio at all. It’ll be flat in Rio. And with your weight and height, it’s not going to be your course…” A month or so out from the World Champs, I had to give myself a talking to because I was already on a back foot mentally. I was already telling myself I wouldn’t do well because it ‘wasn’t my course’. Now for sure in bike racing you have sprinters, and those that specialise in time trial, or the ‘GC’ (general contender) riders for the big tours like the Tour de France, but in para-cycling you have strive to be good at everything, because that’s the only way you’ll succeed in the long run. If you put your own mental blocks in the way of that, it will definately limit you.

Karen Darke in action

Sports psych fascinates me. Having the right mental state is important all the time, to get the most out of every hour and every day (for all of us, regardless of bike racing!) On the day of a big race though, mental state is everything as there is nothing you can do at that point to change your physical form.

So this year, after a block of extremely hard training, I felt more prepared physically than I had previously. Two weeks out from the Worlds, I turned my head around. I was in it for a medal. I was determined. I would fly.

The day before racing, I felt terrible. Heavy armed, heavy muscles, badly slept. But my dad has a great saying which helps me often – “if you feel great, you often go badly on the bike. Then when you feel awful, you go great. Never judge it.” So when I felt terrible the day before, I told myself it was a good thing.

In the races I felt amazing. I was in the zone that every athlete seeks, where you don’t feel or notice any pain. You are just immersed. Hynotised by the pedals and the tarmac ahead. In flow. In the zone.

But when I crossed the finish line, the results weren’t as I hoped. 4th. It’s the first year I haven’t made podium at the World Championships since 2011. It’s hard when you give it everything and you don’t pull it off. But that is the game of racing. The game of performance. The game of rising standards and increased participation. That’s the deal when one race is the focus of your year. And even more so when it comes to the race that has been your focus for four years!

On reflection I’m not too knocked – even though the Gold I am committed to strive for in Rio could potentially seem a long way off; somehow I still believe I can do it, and without belief (and a plan of action) how can we hope to achieve anything?!

So for now, back to hard training.

Back to the graft.

Back to the plan.

The game is on!

To find out more about Karen, visit her website at www.karendarke.com.

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