Taking the slopes by storm

After making history by winning Britain’s first ever Winter Paralympic gold at Sochi, Kelly Gallagher is on the shortlist for BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year. She talks to Fiona O’Brien about her astonishing year and her incredible journey to get there

SINI/Sport NI
SINI/Sport NI

“When people use the word inspirational or legacy I think it sounds so cheesy. But then you hear kids or parents whose children have just been diagnosed telling us they watched thought ‘She’s blind and she can do it, so can we!’

Kelly Gallagher, whose family hail from Donegal, has oculocutaneous albinism and is visually impaired. This winter her and guide Charlotte Evans made alpine skiing the hottest talking point of the Paralympics in Sochi.

“It’s been crazy. We started off touring schools, but then we met the Queen. I got an MBE. I met President Higgins. We were treated like royalty at Ascot and Wimbledon. I’ve been going round the place like a princess, it’s not what we expected at all. But our journey didn’t start overnight,” she says.

Bangor-based Gallagher grew up far removed from European snow slopes, not getting her first taste of the sport until the age of 17.

“Me, my mum and my dad went to Lourdes, which is lovely but not somewhere that would entertain you for a week. So we drove on down to Barcelona and stopped at Andorra,” she says.

“Once we were by the slopes all I wanted to do was get on so I convinced my dad to let me have a go. My mum was like ‘Sure she can’t see… what’s she doing?!’

“I thought it was incredible. People were going up over the mountain and staying there for the day, for lunch and everything. I just knew it was what I wanted to do, to live in the snow. It just felt so intuitive and that was the end of that.”

Her parents’ encouragement was essential in realising her dream, but became all the more poignant when she lost her father Patrick a year and a half before Sochi.

Gallagher was out of training following an injury which shook her confidence when her father was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. It meant she could spend his last months with him but made her question her future in the sport.

“I was either going to throw everything I had at my racing, or I was going to leave. And it didn’t feel right to leave.”

Her guide Evans, from Medway in Kent, helped her reignite her passion for the sport. For those unfamiliar to alpine skiing, Gallagher and Evans won the ‘Super-G’ discipline, in which athletes have to manipulate a swerving course downhill in the best time.

Surely it must be a huge task to hurtle down the side of a mountain as fast as possible frighteningly close to your partner, while staying upright and within the rules?

“We travel down a slope at up to 100kmph, with just a metre between us, so any error can make a huge difference!

“I think it’s harder for Charlotte because my eyesight is so poor. She’s better than a navigator in a car; she’s looking ahead to see what’s the best line to take and all I can see is her little orange bib.

“We’ve created our own little commands for each other; like if we’re going over a roller she’ll shout tight and that’s what we’ve come up with over the past four years.

“For her it’s safety first and competition afterwards. You have to put your whole trust in someone, so it’s fragile. We’ve had a few crashes, but then you just go back to the foundations.

“It’s all about confidence and self-belief. When we won gold she didn’t give in. She kept screaming to get into a tuck position. It makes you go faster but at first my body just didn’t want to do it!

“Eventually I went in going ‘ooooooooh!’ and we ended up getting the fastest time!

“The relationship is a very delicate thing to nurture. If a tuck was the wrong call and I fell, we’d be back to square one so we need that understanding. We need to be fast but we have to cross that line.”

The pair met as Gallagher’s love for skiing developed into a desire to race so she listed a personal ad for a guide.

With some encouragement from her father Evans, who had suffered a knee injury, gelled with Gallagher immediately and at age 19 joined her at the World Championships just weeks later.

But it was this year that the two hit the big time after their historic win.

“I never realised that a gold medal would mean so much to other people! It’s Britain’s first ever skiing gold, in able-bodied and disabled, and as a women in sport it’s great to be recognised.

“I didn’t realise until I got into it how much I love sport. I love horse racing, I thought I was going to lose my mind with excitement when we went to Ascot, and got so into snooker while I was doing my exams.

“I just love the fight and the individual or team story behind it and I think that’s why everyone gets behind any sport. I think sports fans would watch anything if on, not just the mainstream stuff.

“Before we went out, people were like ‘the Paralympics? Wasn’t that just on in London?’

Suzanne Knight/Kelly Gallagher
Suzanne Knight/Kelly Gallagher

“Being in a woman’s amateur sport, there’s no sponsorship or prize money. But maybe similar children may now go on a family ski holiday – that’s enough for me. Or maybe there’s a skiier like Charlotte who may not decide to retire completely, or a dancer from Bangor that gets encouragement.”

It’s this genuine passion that exudes from bubbly Gallagher as she talks a million miles an hour. Outgoing and brimming with positivity she really is the best advertisement for overcoming adversity, but the necessary intensity shines through as she describes the work behind the glitz and glamour of success.

Chatty Gallagher has a maths degree from the University of Bath and is currently on a career break from her role as a statistician for the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. The 29-year-old also lists a career highlight as pulling the perfect 99 flake for Kian Egan while working in Strandhill in Sligo as a teenager; her pilot father built a house there for her mother.

“We tried not to let the Games overwhelm us and treated it like any other race. But we fought so hard physically and mentally to get there.

“When Charlotte started I was still working full-time to pay her way. We started from scratch. I used to get Charlotte to watch the other competitors to see what methods they were using to see what worked best for us.

“We split our time between gym work and two and a half weeks of following the best snow and weather out in Europe.

“We wrote to so many people looking for sponsorship and now we want to share this with them, the people who were there for us when we had nothing and it was just a dream.”

Charlotte trains at the Sports Institute in Northern Ireland alongside men, women, able-bodied, disabled and Irish and Team GB athletes. Here she completes her physio rehab to ensure she’s resilient enough to prevent injury.

“There’s a great camaraderie between us all. I train with Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop who are incredible athletes but there’s a bit of banter between us that I get more attention as I’m from Team GB!

“I’ve just come from training at a council gym, so it’s great. I get excited about little things like what to wear for events, so it’s nice to have a bit of attention on amateur sport and not just the people driving around in Range Rovers!

“The funniest thing this year was after I met Bobby Charlton at Ascot. He knew who I was when I brought my mum to the Royal Box at Wimbledon so I introduced them.

“When I came back from getting a drink of water, she was chatting away to David Beckham! Bobby Charlton had introduced them. I was like ‘whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat!’

“I text my brother saying mummy was chatting to Beckham, and he replied saying he wasn’t that bothered as he didn’t play for Liverpool!”

Gallagher and Evans were also a symbolic part of President Michael D Higgins’ state visit to the UK earlier this year.

“It was such a special day, we were there for his reception and had a personal introduction with the Queen who spoke to us about our medals. It was great being with Charlotte because I’m Irish and she’s British and we have a great relationship so it kind of summed up the whole visit!

Colin Maxwell
Colin Maxwell

“Then we went to the Ceiliúradh concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Maybe I’m just overly sentimental, but it meant a lot to me to be there with all the ex-pats singing the two national anthems. I was born in London, and still have a lot of family there, whereas my Daddy’s family are from the Gaeltacht past Killybegs.

“We have such difficulty with our heritage and identity. My Irishness is part of my heritage, whereas skiing for Britain is part of my culture. I love combining the two of them. I’m lucky that I’m free to do that, it’s been great.

“As long as I’m not offending or disrespecting anybody I don’t care who I compete for. I had to choose Britain because I’m paired with Charlotte so I had to come to terms with that.

“At the end of the day we are competing against my poor eyesight, against the elements of the world and nature that nationality seems so far removed from what we are doing.

“Then being in Paralympics I’ve met so many ex-military who were injured serving their country and they love that national pride of representing where they are from.

“It becomes irrelevant what tracksuit you are wearing as it doesn’t matter what political system you follow or what your sociological or philosophical beliefs are. Gosh – this is really deep!

“Basically the real issue here is about a visually impaired girl who wants to ski and compete against other visually impaired people.

“I think that’s the beautiful thing about it. Our ski jackets have ‘think less, live more’ written on it, and that sums it all up best.

“People with a disability realise maybe there are other worthwhile things in the world to focus on rather than something as simple as a flag which isn’t going to make a difference. It’s the human rather than the team.

“As a child I was the same as anyone else, I had dreams and wanted to do this and that. I can’t emphasise enough how encouraged I was. I don’t think I realised I had a disability until I started secondary school and was thinking ‘why don’t the teachers let me walk up to the board?’

“Then I realised how helpful my friends and primary school teachers had been to me. Because of my upbringing, I never felt that I was incapable of doing anything.

“When I was younger my Dad would let me brothers and sisters have a wee drive down a country road and he’d include me just as much so I could get the same experience of the accelerator and the clutch and the gears.”

Gallagher and Evans are one of ten contenders for this year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year which airs on BBC One this Sunday.

“I used to watch BBC Sports Personality of the Year on my own at home, and it was such a shock to get nominated. I was like ‘oh gosh, we’re sports people too!’It was so overwhelming.

“Being nominated and getting coverage for the sport is enough for me so we’re just really excited about the ceremony. The main thing is I get to go to another lovely event celebrating sport.

“People in Ireland can’t vote so it would be lovely for my London family and old uni friends to get behind us, as well as everyone here in Bangor, but we’re competing with Rory McIlroy too.

“One of my friends here in Bangor works for a designer, and she’s pulled in a favour and I’m flying to London for a fitting. I’m like ‘huh, you’ll dress me???’

“We’re just so excited to be girly for the night and out of tracksuit bottoms and ski boots!”

You can vote for Kelly now from 8pm as the show airs, or register to vote for free online.

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