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Paralympic skier Kelly Gallagher banking on hard work paying off in Sochi

Northern Ireland’s first ever Winter Paralympian has the plans and support in place to improve on her fourth place in 2010.

Image: SINI

THERE IS ONLY one way down from here.

The start gate is locked and loaded, the countdown clock’s shrill beep is on the go and Kelly Gallagher sings herself a lullaby as a fluorescent orange blur pushes away from her and moves on down the mountain.

Now, follow that. As fast as you can, blind.

That’s the scenario for a visually-impaired Paralympian in Sochi next month and it’s one Gallagher is relishing.

The 28-year-old, whose parents originally hail from Donegal and Leitrim, was Northern Ireland’s first ever Winter Paralympian when she went to Vancouver in 2010. That trip yielded a fourth place finish in the Giant Slalom [GS] event, but the Down woman -via London, Donegal and Belfast – counts herself as a much faster, more experienced skier these days and she will go to Russia as Team GB’s best hope of a first ever Winter Paralympic gold medal.

Gallagher has oculocutaneous albinism, a visual impairment that affects the way light is transmitted to the brain due to the lack of pigment in the eye. That’s where the orange glow, Charlotte Evans, comes in.

“In speed disciplines – Downhill and Super G and Combined – I don’t see any of the gates at all,” Gallagher told TheScore.ie this week.

“All I see is the fluorescent orange and listen to what she is saying to me. Especially in GS and slalom, the gate might brush me on the shoulder and I know that I’ve passed the gate.”

YouTube credit: kellygallagher17

Evans is Gallagher’s guide in the treacherous slopes. A promising junior ski racer who suffered an injury setback, the 22-year-old from Kent speaks to Gallagher through a Bluetooth earpiece as she plots out a fast, safe path down.

“She’s a very skilled athlete. Because she was a ski racer before on her own, she’s not pushing 100% of her own ability. She’s able to ski at 80% which is my 100%. She’s able to concentrate on what I should be doing, looking ahead three or four gates and explaining to me what’s coming.

“It’s quite a trick and a skill that she’s performing. I definitely wouldn’t be able to ski anywhere near as fast or as safe without her.”

Some may feel it’s a wonder Gallagher stepped into skiing at all. After all, many people are turned off the idea just at the thought of facing the drop in front of them, but Gallagher credits her father – now sadly deceased – and mother for raising her never to doubt what she is capable of. Though perhaps they were left cursing those lessons when the 17-year-old Kelly got a taste for sliding down a mountain side.

‘This is awesome!’

“We went on a wee holiday down to France. We had gone to Toulouse and Lourdes and we just drove on to Andorra. I kind of convinced Mum and Dad; ‘We should totally have a go at this, it’ll be good fun.’”

The expectations were exceeded.

“I was like, ‘this is awesome!’ My Mum didn’t like it much and my Dad with his job [as a pilot] didn’t want to hurt himself too much.”

As she draws the memory back up Gallagher talks at a rate of knots with the residual heart-pounding excitement. The pace suits her soft Ulster lilt and she slows as she considers the lack of barriers to her taking up the sport she now loves after spending an adolescence without a competitive outlet.

“I think it was a bit lost in translation, I was trying to explain to the instructor that I couldn’t see. And he was like; ‘yeah, it’s really bad visibility, it’s not great.’ But I was saying: ‘No, I really can’t see’.

“I guess because he didn’t realise I couldn’t see very much I got away with quite a lot.

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“I would have been the type of person who tried to get out of PE and stuff at school and I wasn’t even that into sport. I liked it and I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie doing things, but I wouldn’t have been involved in sport when I was younger.

“But with skiing I found something that I really wanted to perfect. Every time I’d go, I’d be like, ‘this is really cool’. You get to the top of the mountain and you get to go places and it’s all under your own steam.”

Under her own steam, Gallagher won Slalom gold at last year’s IPC World Cup event in Sochi, and it is that result which has made her a firm favourite to medal when the Winter Paralympics get under way on the same hill on March 7. Since then, though, the skier has used the summer break to elect into surgery to repair a hip injury with the help of the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland (SINI).

Gallagher credits SINI with giving her the support she needed, not only to have the corrective operation, but to come out the other end fighting fit in time for Sochi. The concentration of elite athletes under the one roof is the perfect way to imposes a culture of high performance.

imageCredit: SINI

“Seeing Jason [Smyth] and Michael [McKillop] and the boxers here in the Sport Institute, it’s great training here because we’re all able to train together and gym together.

“You see people coming back from their injuries – like wee Lisa Kearney training like a mad thing in S&C and it kind of inspires you to go; ‘they’re really pushing hard, I can do that too’.

“Training among athletes like that is inspiring and then seeing them put in a performance in the Olympics and Paralympics is really nice.

“I guess ski racing is quite a lonely sport; because when you are away it’s just myself and Charlotte, so it’s nice to come back to be training with other athletes.”

imageTeam GB's Paralympic skiers with Gallagher (back row, third from right) alongside Evans (second from right) Credit: Press Association.

These days, Gallagher and Evans are travelling the globe, 15 races in 28 days getting them closer and closer to top form. However, the athlete in Gallagher really comes out when asked about targets. Rather than getting giddy about a gold rush on the mountain, she simply trusts in her processes and the best-laid plans that have been put in place up to this point.

"We're not even thinking about the medals," she contends, "I would be happy with whatever happens because I know that I've done everything I can to make sure everything goes well for myself and Charlotte - It's just about that feeling that I've done the best that I can up to the start gate."

That is when the nerves kick in for the County Down woman. Only one way down and only one random song stuck in her head before handing herself over to gravity.

"It ranges from cheesy pop music to rap music. Because you're thinking about so many other things, really strange songs like nursery rhymes will come out and you just go 'where did that come from'?

"One of the starters at a competition asked, 'what song have you got for me today?' Singing definitely calms me down a little bit."

Almost flippantly, she adds: "It's about overcoming any anxiety you've got and just throwing yourself down and seeing what happens.

"That's kind of the fun of it."

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Sean Farrell

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