Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Golden girl Kelly Gallagher isn't finished yet

Northern Ireland's history-making Sochi skiing star Gallagher is hungry for more Games glory in 2018

The Queen holds the gold medal of Paralympic skier Kelly Gallagher
The Queen holds the gold medal of Paralympic skier Kelly Gallagher
Golden girls: Kelly Gallagher (right) and guide Charlotte Evans show off their Paralympic medals
Golden girls: Kelly Gallagher (right) and guide Charlotte Evans show off their Paralympic medals

Kelly Gallagher normally gives all her trophies and medals to her mum. For now, though, she is holding on to her Winter Paralympics gold won in Sochi last month.

No wonder she doesn't want to let it go.

The 28-year-old visually impaired skier from Bangor worked hard enough to get it with all those hours on the slopes, perfecting her technique and fostering a relationship full of trust with Kent- born guide Charlotte Evans.

We are sitting chatting away inside Sports Institute Northern Ireland (SINI) facilities at Jordanstown when I ask her if she has the medal with her.

Big smile. Of course she does.

"Yes, it's here," Kelly says, reaching into her tracksuit pocket and handing it over.

My eyes light up. Like a kid with a new toy, I inspect it, thinking this is one heavy piece of golden treasure.

Kelly is delighted to see the reaction. She gets a warm glow when others are excited by her prize.

While everyone in Northern Ireland revelled in her Sochi success, the graduate in mathematics from the University of Bath admitted her famous victory did not sink in until she flew home. It was only when she was greeted by family and friends in an emotional reunion at George Best Belfast City airport, that it finally hit her that she had made history by becoming the first British sportsperson to win a Winter Paralympics gold.

"I was overwhelmed when I flew home with all my family and friends there. It was a big change from how I normally fly into the City Airport," she joked.

"My whole family had travelled from Donegal, Mayo, Leitrim and all over and to see the balloons, banners and flowers waiting for me was so cool.

"I've had great support in Northern Ireland since I started ski racing when I was a teenager and to share the success with them meant a lot to me.

"It didn't actually sink in that I was a gold medal winner until I came home.

"We were racing right up until the last day of the Games and then I was packing all my stuff so I was always busy.

"Even when we landed in London I didn't realise the impact winning the gold had had and then when I came home to have so many people waiting at the airport was amazing. That's when I started to realise what I had achieved.

"The more time I spend with the medal the more I recognise what a wonderful experience it was in Sochi.

"When you are out there, you are very focused knowing you have a job to do and you are trying to race the best you can.

"We had never been to a competition before where people in the UK had the opportunity to watch it on television. Over in Sochi we were almost living in a bubble, but coming home showed that we really had done something special."

Reflecting on her glory run in the Super G discipline in Russia, Kelly recalls: "We had a really disappointing Downhill race before the Super G and were shocked with how things had gone. We always look at the process of our skiing and we couldn't understand what went wrong that day.

"Charlotte and myself had to work really hard to put that disappointment to one side. We realised it was a brand new day for the Super G and it was a case of trying as hard as we could.

"Being the first to go we had to wait for everyone else to finish. I couldn't believe it when it was confirmed we had won. Even when I was doing interviews afterwards I was still wondering if we truly had taken the gold.

"When they call your name out to go and collect your medal it is an amazing feeling but even when they gave me the medal I was wondering if anyone was going to take it away from me, not that that has ever happened before or that there was any reason for that to happen, but that's what I was thinking at the time."

Proud mum Margaret, who had made the trip to Russia to support her daughter, was overjoyed.

The former Glenlola Collegiate pupil said: "It was nice to have my mum there. It was a tough old trek for her, getting the visa and then the long journey.

"There were a lot of steps and she worked hard to get there. Charlotte's mum and aunt were there too and it was great for us to have that support."

After the Super G success came frustration in her other events, that she had hoped to shine in, but while dejected not to win more medals when in Russia, Gallagher now realises that winning gold was the 'ultimate consolation'.

"We were in great form entering the Games and some of my best races didn't go well which was disheartening at the time. There is nothing we can do about it though, so it is best to enjoy what we achieved out there," says the lady who at our meeting, after being away skiing around the world for most of the year, finally got to collect her Sports Person with a Disability trophy which she won at the 2013 Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards.

"I may have had the three worst days of my season in Sochi but I have the ultimate consolation in my gold medal and I'm proud of myself for that.

"The Super G is a great event because it is a combination of speed, tactics and your technical ability so to win that event was fantastic."

So what now for our golden girl with the bubbly personality?

Already in her plans is next year's World Championships in Canada and she intends having another crack at the Winter Paralympics, in South Korea in 2018.

"Definitely. I'd like to do it again in four years time to see if we could come back with more medals," she states emphatically.

"The next big event though is the World Championships next season in Canada. We've raced there before and done well, so we'll go hoping for more success."

Before then Kelly deserves to bask in her success... and as is her nature intends to let others enjoy it too.

Among the things she plans to do in the weeks and months to come will be to accept the many invitations, including from various primary schools and secondary schools, to talk about her glory at the Games.

Clearly there are still plenty of people who want to see, touch and hold Kelly's gold medal before it is handed over to her mum for safekeeping.

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