By Ciaran O’Donnell
He knew from the moment of impact that things were serious. His car had collided with another car and when he was unable to stand up, he knew instantly that major damage had been done. It was Sunday, January 18th, 2004. Karol Doherty’s world had been turned upside down. From that point on, things were never going to be same.
“I had it in the back of my mind that this wasn’t going to be fixed too handy,” recalls the 39-year-old Carndonagh man.
The T12 vertebrae, which is part of the spinal column and which supports the top of the body, took the hit. The power of his two legs was gone, never to return. The only pain he remembers was the soreness in his back.
The days that followed at the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) in Dublin were dark and despairing. Dark beyond words. Despairing beyond belief.
“There were days I was in that ward when I was looking for a gun. They were tough days,” he comments.
He spent six months at the NRH and it was a period which gave him the tools to cope with what had happened, and shape a future full of life and hope.
Prior to that fateful day close to 15 years ago, sport was a big part of his life. A keen athlete, he was a 17-minute man for 5k. It was only a matter of time when he would post a 16-something for his favourite distance. He also enjoyed pulling on the spikes and slogging it out in the muck during the cross country season. The big meet at Mullusk was an annual outing for Karol and company. Being a past pupil of Carndonagh Community School, he was coached by Pascal Harkin.
Although he knew he wasn’t going to be competing in athletics as he had been doing for so long, he was determined to get back to being active, albeit in different circumstances. He was introduced to archery, shooting and basketball at the NRH as soon as he was fit to be put on the programme.
“While I accepted what had happened to a certain extent, I suppose I never fully accepted it. You get on with your life, but I don’t think your ever fully get over it.”
The first four years after the accident were the hardest.
“After that it got a bit easier. You just get used to it,” he says.
Karol was instantly drawn to the hand-bike – it would give him independence, exercise and ultimately a method of competing. Moreover, it would give him the opportunity to get back to the outdoors and experience the elements he’d fought against and soaked up in equal measure as an able-bodied athlete once more.
He bought his first racing chair online in 2006 from a woman in the UK who was retiring from the sport. He met with the Irish Wheelchair Association to learn how to push the chair and understand the proper technique.
In the early days, his father, Donal, would lead the way in the car for Karol on the road during his sessions.
“I was using up his time. I could have been out for an hour and half to two hours. He didn’t really mind, but it was just using up his time.”
Donal retired the day of the the accident to look after Karol. He’d driven a lorry for Inishowen Oil for 43 years.
Karol says his mother, Anne, took what happened to him the worst. Monthly meetings were held at the NRH to monitor progress and to plan ahead for the next month. The physio, the consultant, the spinal surgeon, the sports therapist and his counsellor all had an input, as Karol and his parents listened on.
“My mother said if she could, she would have swapped places with me and sat in the wheelchair instead of me. It was tough on my parents, too,” he says.
He started off doing a few short races in the chair and moved up to the half marathon before taking on the Dublin Marathon in 2008.
“The marathon was always the one. It gives some buzz the whole way around,” he adds.
He then moved to hand-biking for some cross training to help build up other muscles.
“My arms are my arms and legs now. So they have double the work.”
When he’s not wheelchair racing for Inishowen AC in the summer, Karol is busy rowing over the winter months. He took up rowing in 2006. He’s a member of the City of Derry Boating and has been making a big impression on a national level. He has high hopes of making the qualifying time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. While he missed the cut for the world championships in Bulgaria earlier in the month, Rowing Ireland are keen he still stays on the programme as he is within range of the qualifying time.
He was in Cork for a three-day stint earlier this year and made massive in-roads. He’s currently nursing a right arm problem – it’s operating at 75 per cent power because of nerve damage, but he is confident he will get back to maximum power sooner rather than later.
“I want to make the qualifying time for the Olympics next year. All things considered I was happy with how things went in Cork. If I can get the full power back in the right arm, I’ll give it a real go. It would be good to get there. At the minute I’m doing three 25 minute intervals, with five minutes break in between. That type of training will change month by month. By the time I drive to and from the club in Derry, that can take most of four hours.”
This Sunday, Karol will take the starter’s gun at the Donegal East Half Marathon in Ballybofey. He had a solid performances in the Belfast and Derry Marathons earlier in the year and posted a time of 1:16:20 in the Donegal Half Marathon just last month which placed him second overall. On Sunday, he set a new personal best of 1:07:30 for the half marathon when placing joint first in the Belfast City Half.
“When people clap me off at the start line, that gives me a great lift,” he says.
Karol tries to avoid looking back. Instead, he lives in, and for, the here and now.
“I’m just aware of how hard it was back then,” he muses.
“There’s a lot to it,” he continues.
“You look at things a lot differently. You learn to slow down a bit and appreciate life.”
Karol became a father for the first time nine months ago when his partner, Nia, gave birth to Isla.
“She came along just before Christmas and has made a huge difference to our lives. She rules the roost.”
His attitude to life is as admirable as it is remarkable. Focused, talented and driven, he is an individual who can only but inspire, and whose wisdom knows no bounds.
It all seems impossible until it’s done. Just ask Karol Doherty.
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