Kate O'Brien is taking more than a silver medal away from the Tokyo Paralympics.
The track cyclist says the Games have also showed her just how little separates elite Para athletes from their able-bodied counterparts.
“All athletes are the same. And all humans are the same," she told The Canadian Press in a phone interview from Tokyo on Tuesday. "There doesn’t need to be as much of this division between able-bodied and Para. Because having a knee injury is not different than being paraplegic and yet, somehow, we still put them into different categories.
"Being here with other Para athletes has shown me how friggin' fast they are at what they do.”
O'Brien, 33, knows better than most — she's in the unique position of having competed at both the 2016 Rio Olympics and the Tokyo Paralympics this summer.
A former bobsled athlete who competed for Canada in the 2013 world championships before suffering a torn hamstring, the Calgary native shone in the velodrome at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, winning gold in the team sprint and silver in the women's individual event.
In Rio, though, she finished well off the podium, 13th in the keirin, 14th in the sprint and eighth in the team sprint.
Then O'Brien's life changed dramatically.
A crash during training at the Calgary velodrome in July 2017 left her with life-threatening injuries, including a serious head injury, a punctured lung, broken clavicle and cracked ribs.
“It was very up in the air as to whether I’d walk or speak again," O'Brien said.
As she worked her way through recovery and rehabilitation, O'Brien made it clear to her loved ones that she was going to get back on a bike, even if it was only to ride to the grocery store for a pack of Sour Patch Kids.
A return to competitive track cycling wasn't far behind, though.
By February 2020, O'Brien had won gold in the C4 500-metre time trial at the World Para Cycling Track Championships in Milton, Ont. She also got back to competing against able-bodied track cyclists.
“It’s super important for me to show that just because things change, it doesn’t mean you can’t do things still," she said. “We tend to write ourselves off when things happen. And I don’t think that we need to.”
Returning to the sport that nearly claimed her life was difficult for those who'd sat next to O'Brien in the intensive care unit.
The initial decision was met with kindness and support, but deterrence, too, she said.
“I think everyone was a bit nervous to have me come back to racing," she said. "But they’re honestly just so happy and proud of what I’ve done, even beyond if I come home with a medal. I think more so it’s just the journey that they’re thrilled about.”
Many of O'Brien's friends and family members were thrilled on Aug. 25 when the rookie Paralympian raced to silver in the women's C4-5 500m time trial.
She finished in 35.439 seconds, a fraction of a second off the 34.812 time posted by gold medallist Kadeena Cox of Britain.
Bobsledder Kaillie Humphries tweeted out congratulations with a video about O'Brien's story, saying O'Brien had been her brakeman for a couple of years.
"The greatest person. So proud & happy for (O'Brien) earning a Paralympic medal," wrote Humphries, who won two Olympic golds and a bronze for Canada before decamping to the U.S. team. "I'm inspired by her. Thanks for teaching me how to be cool like you & ride a bike like a boss."
O'Brien also competed in the road cycling C4 time trial in Tokyo on Tuesday but bowed out of the race after the first lap with muscle spasms.
“I couldn’t actually pedal anymore so I had to call it there,” she explained.
Fellow Canadian Keely Shaw of Midale, Sask., finished just off the podium in the event with a time of 42 minutes 11.09 seconds.
While it wasn't the result she wanted, O'Brien is proud of her showing in Tokyo and of all the work it took her to get there.
“I never, ever would have seen things going this way," she said. "It’s very, very different than what I had thought would happen post-Rio. But honestly, I’m so grateful.”
O'Brien said she's been asked several times whether she'd go back and erase her 2017 crash and the aftermath if she had the ability.
“Genuinely, no," she said, noting that she's learned a lot about people and working with others across her journey.
“This has really brought me back to living life in a happy way and doing something that I love.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 31, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press