Kate O’Brien was told she would never walk, ride a bike or speak properly again. She refused to accept it.
Now, she’s competing in para-cycling on the world stage: The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
O’Brien is a former Olympian, competing in track cycling for Team Canada at the 2016 Rio Games. She almost participated in the 2014 Games, narrowly missing the cut as a bobsledder.
Then the crash happened.
O’Brien crashed in a cycling demonstration at an outdoor track in Calgary, as outlined by CBC. Her rear tire blew, and she hit the back of the pacing motorbike in front of her, launching her up the track.
She was rushed to the hospital where doctors performed emergency surgery to relieve the pressure on her brain. O’Brien also suffered a punctured lung, cracked ribs and broken clavicle.
When medical professionals gave her their dire diagnosis — no more walking or biking — she knew they might be right. But she was determined to make them wrong.
“I didn’t like those discussions,” she told CBC in October 2020. “But it also didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t do those things. It wasn’t so much that I thought I’d still be a competitor in cycling, but I wanted to ride a bike. So why wouldn’t I?”
O’Brien’s rehab wasn’t easy. One year after the accident, she started to experience seizures, and almost decided to stop riding. “I refused to accept it,” she said. “I refused to go on medication. I was just so ashamed.”
But over time, O’Brien began to delve into medical research about how to keep seizures at bay, and decided she was going to try biking again.
At the urging of her physiatrist, she looked into para-cycling. She realized she was classifiable in the C4 category (encompassing individuals with lower limb impairments), and decided to give it a shot.
Now, she’s embracing the change.
“I said ‘OK, let’s give this a shot,’” O’Brien told Cycling Magazine in January 2020. “So far, it’s been one of the best decisions that I’ve made.”
O’Brien, 33, has become an elite para-cyclist, representing Canada at the 2020 UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships.
O’Brien went on to win two world titles and set two world records. Not too shabby of a debut.
With the Paralympics beginning Tuesday, O’Brien is now focused on medaling. She’ll be doing it with her whole country standing behind her: Calgary has enacted a Celebration Wall for O’Brien, which includes a bench to help people pose for photos they can post on social media.
In addition, O’Brien will have the unheralded support from her partner, cyclist Meghan Grant. The couple are very open on social media, posting adorable candid shots together.
Over the last four years, O’Brien says she’s come to learn that life can take unexpected turns, and it’s up to us to make the most of our situations.
“The truth is, stuff isn’t back to normal,” she told CBC. “But I’ve realized that `normal’ is just a word. My life will never be the same as it was, but that’s not a bad thing. Things don’t need to stay the same all the time.”
From the Olympics to Paralympics: Go Kate, go.
You can follow Kate O’Brien on Instagram here.