Breaking barriers isn’t always easy but Karen March makes it seem that way as she has continued to pave her way in wheelchair sports. A 1988 car accident set Karen on an athletic journey like no other when, 10 years later, she was introduced to wheelchair sports.
Over the years, she has become a highly accomplished Paralympian who blazed a trail of podium finishes all over the world in both the sports of Athletics and Paracycling.
At the Paralympic Games in Athens, Karen took part in Athletics competing in the 200m T52 event where she finished 8th and the 400m T52 event where she finished 10th. She had an 8th place finish in the 100m at the 2002 World Championships where she also finished 7th in the 400m. She then “retired” from Athletics, taking up cycling for recreation. That recreational path led her to compete at the highest international level in the sport.
In Paracycling, competitors in her class use their arms to power a recumbent three-wheeled racing bike. The hand-powered bicycle has a gear-shift system controlled by her breathing and a sophisticated braking system that allows her to slow down by back-pedalling. Her most recent competitive bike was developed by CanAssist, a University of Victoria organization that develops and delivers technologies, programs and services that improve the quality of life for those with disabilities. CanAssist’s engineering team modified the bike so Karen could compete on a level playing field.
With her level of disability, Karen would not have been able to compete at the World Cup without the modifications to her bike. She literally opened up an entire class to all quadriplegic racers with her success.
“Surrounding myself with ‘can do’ people who think outside the box has led me to many adventures,” says Karen.
In 2011, she won the overall World Cup title in Paracycling for class H1, giving her the distinction of earning the first-ever World Cup leader’s jersey after her dominant performance. In 2011, she also earned two gold medals at the UCI Paracycling World Cup in Spain by finishing first in her class in a 36km road race and a 13km time trial.
She was the 2012 recipient of the Athlete of the Year award at the 2012 Women in Sport Celebration in Victoria
Karen retired from competitive Paracycling in 2012 after choosing not to compete in the London Paralympics. She is a true believer in the promotion and support of women in sport and continues to give back to wheelchair sports
"What I now treasure after retirement are the friendships and contacts I have made over the years,” she adds. “They still feed me as I continue to support sport on many levels.”
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Born in 1966 in Edmonton, Alison Sydor demonstrated a natural ability to ride a bike as a child, and her dad recalls that from her first try in the saddle she never used training wheels. Clearly, an early portend of the greatness to come. After growing up in Calgary, Alison left the snow and cold winters behind to attend UVIC. As a dabbler in the sport of triathlon, Alison met members of the Victoria Wheelers bike club who invited her to join a club ride. She quickly realized her great love was cycling. Her first race was the BCGEU Criterium in 1987, and after some success locally, she made the BC team for the Western Canadian Games and won gold in all three cycling disciplines. She finished her debut season with a silver in the road race at the National Championships and made the Canadian national road racing team. In 1991 she finished third in the World Championships to make history and become the first Canadian woman to win a medal in the individual road race competition.
But it wasn't all a steady trajectory to the glories ahead. In 1990, at the World Road Championships in Japan, she came in dead last! Alison can state with great pride that she never dropped out of a race, even when there was no hope of winning. By 1992 she was ranked third in the world and she competed at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, finishing 12th in the road race.
At this same time, Alison began testing her abilities in the emerging sport of mountain biking. In 1991, in her debut on the World Cup scene she placed 4th in Mt. Ste. Anne, and at her second World Cup race, she won the round in Switzerland. After the Barcelona Olympic road race she traded her skinny tires for knobby ones, and her first medal at the World Championship level came in 1992 in Bromont, Quebec.
Alison's last big road goal was to race in the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, where only road disciplines were included. After a silver medal in the team time trial and a bronze in the road race, she put all her energies into the sport of mountain biking. It paid off as Alison finished the 1994 season with a win in the World Cup finals and a gold medal at the World Championships in Vail.
In a 1999 feature article in theMountain Bike Guide,the writer commented that "the gutsy riding of a champion, the fierce look of a winner, the passion of a championship ride are nowhere better exemplified than in Alison Sydor." Alison relished being at the top of her sport, and her role as a pioneer and ambassador. She won a silver medal in the 1996 inaugural mountain biking Summer Olympics along with 3 straight World Championship titles from 1994 to 1996. Incredibly, for 13 consecutive years, Alison never finished outside the top 5 at the World Championships and she won the Overall World Cup competition three times.
Alison was awarded the Velma Springstead Trophy as Canada's top female athlete in 1995 and 1996. In September 2007 she was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame and the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame. Most recently she was inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame and now it is Victoria's turn to honour her.
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