Belfast Telegraph

Kelly Gallagher wins Paralympic gold: Heroine's homecoming awaits for our snow queen of Sochi

Tributes flow for Bangor Paralympian who made history

By Rebecca Black

A triumphant homecoming is in store for the Bangor woman who scooped Team GB's first gold at a Winter Paralympic Games.

And there may yet be more to celebrate, as Kelly Gallagher (28) prepares to compete in another three events.

While most of us were sleeping in the early hours of Monday morning, Kelly and her guide Charlotte Evans were first out of the blocks in the Super-G in Sochi.

They posted the time of one minute, 28.72 and faced a nervous wait to see if it could be bettered.

The Russian favourite Aleksandra Frantceva crashed out leaving Kelly and Charlotte at the top, while a second British pair picked up bronze in an extraordinary day for Team GB.

Kelly immediately paid tribute to Charlotte as the pair celebrated.

"I'm delighted, it is so good to have such a great reward for all my and Charlotte's hard work," she said.

"I couldn't have done it without Charlotte's constant determination and talent. She's a star!

"It's been a difficult journey here and we are so happy to have had so much support from the very start."

Kelly summed up her win against the odds as proof that "hard work and self-belief really does pay off".

"I'm so delighted to be part of such a unique and historical moment for British Paralympic sport and I can't wait to see more disabled skiers out on the mountain now," she said.

Yesterday morning First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness issued their congratulations.

Mr Robinson described Kelly as a "great ambassador for Northern Ireland".

"I congratulate Kelly Gallagher on winning Great Britain's first ever Winter Paralympic Gold," he said.

"Through her success in Sochi she has now written her name in the records of sporting history as Paralympic GB's first ever gold."

Mr McGuinness added: "This achievement is the culmination of many years of hard work and sacrifice and Kelly should be very proud.

"I hope Kelly and her family enjoy every moment of this victory and I wish her every success for the rest of her events."

North Down councillor Brian Wilson has submitted a motion to council calling for the postbox on the Rathmore Road in Bangor, close to where Kelly grew up, to be painted gold "in recognition of her unique achievement".

The local post boxes of British gold medallists during the London 2012 Games were painted gold.

It is understood that North Down Council plan to consult with Kelly and her family over how she would most like to be honoured by the borough.

The pair are set to compete again today and then on Friday.

From novice to the top of the world in just 11 years

She's the straight-A student who never let her partial blindness stop her from excelling in school, sport or music. Kelly Gallagher had never stepped foot on a ski slope until she was 17, yet now the 28-year-old is among the best in the world.

Her journey to gold started on a family visit to Lourdes. As they drove through the picturesque Pyrenees towards Barcelona, Kelly suddenly piped up that she wanted to try skiing.

Skiing can be challenging enough for most of us but for Kelly, whose condition, oculocutaneous albinism, weakens her eyesight, it is even more daunting.

Having never been able to drive a car or ride a bike safely, she said to find herself skiing was an amazing experience.

She was still attending Glenlola Collegiate in Bangor at that time, but after leaving with 4 A-grades in her A-Levels, she went to Bath University to study maths.

There, she started to ski more, but it became more serious in 2008 when Disability Snowsport UK selected her for its development team.

Just two years later she became the first person from Northern Ireland to qualify for the Winter Paralympics team at the Vancouver Games, where she finished a respectable sixth in the slalom and fourth in the giant slalom with previous guide Claire Robb.

In 2011 she became the first British athlete to win a para-alpine skiing medal at the IPC World Championships when she took silver in Sestriere, Italy.

In 2013 she climbed up the rankings further, taking silver in the Super-G at the World Championships in La Molina, Spain.

And yesterday morning she went one better to become the first British Paralympian to win a gold at the Winter Games when she took the Super G.

At her first school, Rathmore Primary, the children cheered and Kelly's P5 teacher Maureen Humphrey said even at the age of nine her determination was clear to see.

"I remember her well, she was always a girl who rose to a challenge," she said.

"We are just delighted with her success, she's really an inspiration and can teach so much to not only our boys and girls here, but to children everywhere."

Her A-Level chemistry teacher at Glenlola, Michael Spence, recalled that when Kelly came back to speak at a school assembly last year the pupils were so spellbound you could have heard a pin drop.

"She was a very dedicated student, the fact she couldn't see was no obstacle," he said. "She had a great attitude; if she couldn't see something on the blackboard she would have come up after class to ask."

Outside of academic demands Kelly was involved with the Navy Cadets and sailing as well as music. She played the clarinet, saxophone and was also a member of the choir.

"She threw herself into it like she threw herself into everything," added Mr Spence.

This intense pride in Kelly was also echoed on the streets of Bangor yesterday.

On Main Street, Dorothy Kelly (73) said: "It's absolutely fantastic. She's so brave, doing that as well as being partially-sighted.

"I think it is just marvellous."

Surf Mountain shop worker Chris McCartney (29) said between Kelly and Aimee Fuller, Bangor was doing very well for snow sports.

"I know Kelly from around town, being the same age as her," he said. "She's a great ambassador for the town as well as Aimee. There's a real buzz about the town over it."

While over on the Rathmore Road there were even bigger smiles. Elizabeth Mairs (70) said she would love to see their postbox painted gold in honour of Kelly's medal.

"We should paint it gold because it's just so great," she said. "She's an inspiration, she has really battled against all the odds."

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