The Olympic rings are sewn upside down, dark green on yellow felt. The book is tattered and frayed like a well-loved teddy bear held onto by a child from birth to adulthood. Looking through the album it’s obvious it’s been touched by many hands and seen by many eyes over the past 28 years.
“My aunty made it for me and she put the Olympic rings upside down. I haven’t fixed it because she made it that way. It’s absolutely me, isn’t it?”
When Karen was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at two and a half years old, her mother was told to put her in a home and forget about her; that was not an option that ever crossed her mind.
“My mother and father brought me up like a normal human being because she didn’t know what else to do”.
As the eldest of five children, Karen’s parents didn’t wrap her in cotton wool, as far as they were concerned she was just as capable as everyone else. “Mum would give me the towel and say here, dry yourself and I’ll be back when I’m done with the others. And that’s how it was, that’s how it always was”.
The location where Karen’s story begins is the exact location where we sit today, in Ability Centre’s Sir David Brand Centre; or as Karen knew it as, The Sir James Mitchell Spastic Centre.
Karen came to Perth from England with her family at 5 years old, she relays the story so vividly, speaking of the time she spent at the Sir James Mitchell Spastic Centre in Mount Lawley.
“It was a big old house and every time we needed a new classroom they just bought another old house and added it on. You weren’t allowed to go to a normal school when you had a disability, so I didn’t”.
As well as general schooling and health support services, the Centre provided training sessions with athletic coaches and after attending her first session, Karen realised how much she loved sport.
“You see I’d never done any sport before, so trying all these new things was really wonderful for me, I did javelin, shot put and discus, I was like a child in a toy shop. I was like ‘oh I’ll try that!’ And some things I’ve tried I’ve absolutely hated!”
Karen was 18 when she had her first taste of sport, at the time she had no idea where it would lead her. The one thing she did know was how much she loved the way it made her feel, so in-control; almost unbreakable.
Karen went on to complete business college and started working in banking, she continued to train and practice sport as her passion. The year was 1988 and changes were made to the Paralympic Games, athletes with Cerebral Palsy were now able to compete which gave Karen the opportunity to qualify. Naturally, she knocked it out of the park, or in her case threw it out the park, qualifying for Javelin.
“The whole experience was just mind blowing, it was more than I thought I’d ever do in my life. So it was just wonderful.”
Nostalgia fills the room as we talk about her trip to Seoul.
“It was breathtaking, I cannot explain how it feels to be out there in the middle of all of it all, knowing that everyone is cheering for you and that what you’ve done is a major thing”.
The experience is an achievement in itself, and Karen came home with a very special reminder of her time, in the form of a silver medal.
Her medal is cold, solid and heavy, an image of two teddy bears with their legs are tied together like a three-legged race is printed on the medal. The symbolism in the bears could not be more reminiscent of Karen’s personality; trialling over adversity to achieve her goals.
1988 was a significant year for Karen and she faced some of the highest highs and lowest lows.
Karen lost her father before she was able to compete at Seoul, making her silver medal win a bittersweet moment she remembers so well.
“Winning the silver medal just meant so much more because I thought well there you go, Dad, I won”.
She met the love of her life, Ted, who still stands strong beside her 28-years later.
Steeped in pride with the green and gold of Australia under her belt, Karen’s personality is always striving for more. She pushes herself at every corner of life, with the silver medal just the start of her athletic achievements.
“I do water-skiing for the disabled now. I’ve been doing it for over 25 years now and hold the world record for jumps because no one else will do it!”
Karen’s husband Ted throws in from across the room that no one else is allowed to do it; that their doctors advise strongly against it.
To Karen, being told she can’t is more fuel for the fire “I don’t care, I just did it! I didn’t ask any doctors I just went over it”.
Water skiing isn’t something Karen learnt overnight, in fact it took her 18 months to get up on the ski.
“I fell off again and again but I knew I could get it if I could modify the ski. So I went and got a chopping board out the kitchen, got a screwdriver and screwed it to the end of the ski; I just needed a bit more length”.
To describe Karen as an adrenaline junkie would be an insult, she pushes herself to the limit however she always has support around her in-case she falls.
From her first walking stick to her current chair, Karen has always had Ability Centre as her support service, she even calls them her ‘go-to people’.
“If there’s ever a problem, I come to Ability Centre, I trust them and they have supported me throughout my whole life”.
Karen relays a story of when she went to a podiatrist who told her she needed surgery to cut the tendons off her toes, she had never heard of it before so she called Ability Centre and found out if she had followed through with the surgery, she wouldn’t be able to stand.
“This is why we need our go-to people, just to make sure you’re not being told one thing and really the story is another. If anything is doubtful, medical wise, I come right back and see Ability Centre”.
Looking to Ability Centre as the leaders in Cerebral Palsy is Karen’s way of staying up-to date with all the changes in technology too.
“Every couple of years you find something changes. I just ring and say “hey this has happened what do you reckon?” and they let me come in and have a complete new assessment”.
The sheer will and tenacity that Karen exudes is remarkable. She looks at the world differently to most. When life gives you lemons what do you do? You make lemonade!
Karen never viewed herself as disadvantaged, she knew she had obstacles to overcome but that just made life more interesting.
“I got stuck in the bath once and there was no way I was going to ring the bloody fire brigade or the ambulance, so I just kept filling it up until I floated over the top”.
The room erupts with laughter but Karen remains composed.
“Well I am pretty clever, what else are you going to do? Sit there and cry about it. I don’t do baths anymore. I’ve decided I’m too old to float over the top in-case I break my arm” she says with a cheeky ear-ear grin.
Scribed on the inside right hand cover of the album is a very personal poem, a poem Karen wrote herself,
Strive to reach the very top
To keep on going when you want to stop
To work until your body aches
To go on, yes that’s what it takes
As any athlete here would know
It’s inner strength that strikes the blow.
At awe at her achievements I turn towards her and tell her how amazing and inspiring she is. She looks back at me with an eyebrow lifted “It’s not amazing, it’s just normal”.