Kate O’Brien woke up in intensive care in Calgary in the summer of 2017. She had been in a coma for two weeks as her life hung in the balance.
“When I came to, I had a divot in my skull,” she says on a call from Japan, where she is about to compete in her first Paralympics. “It was sort of funny. I had no idea where it came from and why I was in the hospital.”
She is light-hearted as she tells the story of her survival, recovery and unique transition from being an Olympian who had no disability to a Paralympian.
O’Brien, 33, competed as a cyclist at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. The following year she had a life-changing accident. While giving a cycling demonstration to beginners, the bike she was riding blew a rear tire, she lost control and struck the back wheel of the pacing motorbike ahead of her. Hurtled through the air, as she landed on the track she cracked ribs, broke a clavicle, punctured a lung and suffered a serious head injury.
Her mother, Beth Smith O’Brien, an emergency-room nurse at Peter Lougheed Centre, had never seen her daughter in a cycling competition, so she accompanied her that day to watch. Horrified, she ran to the scene and cradled her daughter’s head.
At the Foothills Medical Centre, where she had been admitted, an operation was performed to relieve pressure in Kate O’Brien’s brain. At that point, she was unable to breathe on her own. Loved ones came to say goodbye. Plans were made to donate her organs.
She nearly died.
“For the first five days, doctors weren’t sure what was going to happen,” she says. “When it looked like I would make it out alive, they didn’t think I would be able to speak or walk again.
“I was told I would never be able to get on a bike and that became the big thing to me. It never entered my mind that I could race again. I just wanted to ride to the grocery store to get a bag of Sour Patch Kids.”
O’Brien spent two weeks in intensive care and three weeks in a neurological ward. It took nearly a year of rehabilitation after that, but the results were miraculous. For the first time, she considered a return to competitive cycling. Then she began to have seizures. The head injury caused epilepsy.
“It was a really difficult time for me,” O’Brien says. “I had already been through so much. I refused to accept it.”
Someone suggested that she should try para sports, but she balked.
“I knew about them and thought they were great, but as an able-bodied athlete I said, ‘No, I’m not doing that,’” she says.
‘It’s a shame to be here and not see beyond our bus’
Kate O’Brien and her teammates on Canada’s Paralympic cycling squad arrived in Japan on Wednesday. They are staying in a satellite village near the Izu Velodrome in Shizuoka, about 175 kilometres southwest of Tokyo.
Each morning she and the other cyclists are awakened at around 7:30 and immediately have to take a COVID-19 test.
“We can’t drink water or brush our teeth until we spit in a tube,” she says.
They have to stay within a Canadian bubble and wear masks except while eating or out on the track. A temperature scan is taken before they enter the dining hall.
“It is extremely limited as to where we can go,” O’Brien says. “It’s a shame to be here and not see beyond our bus.”
The Paralympic portion of the Tokyo Games begin on Tuesday and run through Sept. 5.
She narrowly missed qualifying for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi
O’Brien played basketball and ran track as she grew up but sustained a knee injury in high school and quit sports for a number of years. A friend recommended that she try the skeleton, a sliding sport in which a single person is strapped to a small sled, but she kept slamming into the walls.
“You’re speedy, but you can’t drive,” someone said.
She next tried out as a bobsled brakeman and took a spin around the former Olympic site in Calgary. It was love at first fright.
“We went down the track and we were really fast and we crashed at the bottom,” O’Brien says. “I said, ‘This is my sport!’”
After being introduced to the bobsleigh in 2010, she narrowly missed qualifying for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. A torn hamstring in 2013 caused her to miss nearly half of the run-up to the Olympics.
“The whole time I was bobsledding it didn’t occur to me that I could become an Olympian,” O’Brien says. “I did it just because I loved the sport. It didn’t hit me until just before qualifying. Then I pulled the old Kate injury thing.
“I am an injury-prone creature. I don’t know, maybe I just like hospitals.”
Mulling her future afterward, O’Brien decided to try piloting a bobsled instead, and in March, 2014 attended driving school in Calgary. Cycling Canada was administering physical tests to athletes there at the same time and she agreed to have them done. Her results were promising and she was invited to a training camp in Los Angeles.
“I didn’t even know what track cycling was,” she says.
Within months O’Brien was competing internationally and spent that year and the next competing on both the World Cup track cycling and bobsleigh circuits. She won gold and a silver medal in cycling at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto and retired from fast and scary runs down icy corridors.
O’Brien made her Olympic debut in 2016 and competed in all three track cycling sprint events. Then came her crash and a craniectomy, seizures and a diagnosis of epilepsy.
After a long period in which she wrestled with acceptance, she reached out to officials with Canada’s Paralympic team and indicated a willingness to participate.
“It easily became the best sporting experience I have ever had,” O’Brien says. “I was welcomed with open arms.”
She attended a camp with other para-cyclists and won two world titles at the 2020 para-cycling track world championships at the Mattamy National Cycling Centre in Milton, Ont. In her first international para event, she was clocked at 51 kilometres an hour and set a world record of 35.223 seconds in the C4 category of the 500-metre sprint and another record of 11.519 seconds in the 200-metre time trials.
(Cyclists are given a classification depending on the type and extent of their limitation. They are classified according to their functional ability across four broad categories – blind or partially sighted tandem, hand cycle, tricycle and standard bicycle. The class number indicates the severity of restrictions, with “1” being most limiting.)
“My first thought was that they must have gotten the times wrong,” O’Brien says.
Now, she is days away from her first Paralympics and is grateful to be there.
“At the beginning, I didn’t want to even talk about being a Paralympian and I’m not sure why,” she says. “I’m still not sure what makes it so difficult. In the end, it has taught me a lot. No matter what happens, I will always consider myself a para athlete.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Beth Smith O’Brien works at Foothills Medical Centre. In fact, she is a nurse at Peter Lougheed Centre. This version has been corrected.