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Wedding bells in the air as Kelly plans more gold glory

By Steven Beacom

On Christmas Day, Kelly Gallagher felt on top of the world when she got engaged to her boyfriend on top of a mountain in county Sligo.

A few weeks on when the Paralympic skiing champion talks about the proposal from Warrenpoint architect Gerard Tohill (below), her voice is filled with happiness, joy and excitement.

The 31-year-old's personal life could not be much better. Speaking from a training camp in Austria, the history-making sportswoman from Bangor admits, however, that professionally she is going through some tough, testing and changing times.

Gallagher became a household name in 2014 when she won Team GB's first ever gold medal at the Paralympic Winter Games. The visually impaired skier claimed victory in the Super-G event in Sochi in Russia alongside her guide, Charlotte Evans from Kent.

For Kelly, who suffers from a condition called oculocutaneous albinism which affects the pigment in her hair, skin and eyes, it was a spectacular triumph that captured the imagination of everyone in the UK including royalty, politicians and celebrities with Victoria Beckham among those sending congratulations.

Three years on, Kelly has a new guide, Gary Smith, after close friend Charlotte decided to step away from her role having suffered concussion following a serious training accident. There is also increased competition to deal with and she reveals that finding motivation can be a challenge on certain days.

Nevertheless, her aim is to go to Pyeongchang in South Korea in March next year and win gold again at the Winter Paralympics. Before then she has a busy schedule starting with the World Para Alpine Skiing Championships, where she has won silver and bronze medals in the past. The event begins in Tarvisio, Italy tomorrow and she plans to compete in the Giant Slalom, Slalom, Super G and Super Combined and possibly the Downhill.

"I would prefer to be more prepared. It would be better to be closer to the top girls and winning but I'm just not there at the moment," says Kelly with an honest assessment of her current form.

"I'm lacking a little bit everywhere. I'm not as toned physically as I should be and that all plays into it. It is about trusting myself, my coaches and the equipment and I haven't been quite on it.

"It has been difficult changing guides from Charlotte to someone new. Gary and I are still trying to work a lot of things out and that is frustrating but I'm trying my best to improve every day.

"There have been days when I have been very low in confidence and feeling down. I suppose there are days that everyone doesn't enjoy going to work and when things don't go as you had visualised.

"I see this as a storm that I'm sailing through and when I come through it I'll be the better for it.

"I think it is just change. There has been so much change since 2014. When you get older you get a little bit tired and you have to motivate yourself every day. I used to roll out of bed smiling. Now I have to roll out of bed and remind myself to be happy because everything is going okay.

"The main reason you don't tell people you aren't having a great time is that when you sit down and think logically about it I am having a great time. I am in a beautiful hotel, I'm going down to the gym, I may have a swim and we are getting lovely nutritious food. It's just when the skiing isn't going perfectly you tend to be hard on yourself."

Gallagher and Evans, whose health is fine now, developed great trust as they communicated on their way down slopes via bluetooth headsets travelling at speeds of up to 80km/h. Getting used to someone new isn't easy, even though RAF man Smith is an expert operator.

"There are ups and down. The ups come when you can see you are working really well together," says Kelly, who first went skiing on a family holiday in Andorra when she was a teenager.

"Then it is hard because I'm so used to routine and you are trying to peel yourself away from what I had built previously. It is difficult to let go of what you used to do and leap forward into something new, especially because Charlotte and I had success.

"The other day I wasted a training day wallowing because I didn't do what I meant to do so you can be in two minds and that is tiring.

"Overall though I still get that buzz, I want to do well and want to go to the Games next year and win gold again.

"The competition has moved on a lot. We have young girls in our team and they are so fast. Every girl is wanting to win gold and can see that it is possible. It means you can't rest on your laurels. It means you have to be pushing all the time in order to be competitive.

"Hopefully I can lay foundations this season and over the summer so that I can be at the top of my game for the Paralympics next year."

In March, Gallagher, a trailblazer for the Winter Paralympics in the UK, will go to South Korea for test events for next year's Games and as well as competing in other events around the world, she's set to visit New Zealand in August to work on her technique.

"I struggle with not being at home. I really do miss it," says Kelly, who was aided on her way to the top by the Mary Peters Trust .

"I loved being at home at Christmas time. I was counting down the days and when I got home I was delighted."

The last Christmas proved to be even more enjoyable that she anticipated.

"My boyfriend is now my fiancé which is lovely because I got engaged on Christmas Day," Gallagher says with glee.

"I was joking with him 'now don't be proposing over Christmas… that is so clichéd. Everyone does that' but obviously I didn't mean that at all and when he did it, it was brilliant and such a surprise. I loved it. I had the best day. It was great."

And the proposal from the man she met in London through friends several years ago?

Kelly explained: "We went walking up Knocknarea which is behind my mum's house in Strandhill in county Sligo. He made me walk all the way up to the top. I was thinking, 'this is Christmas Day. Why does he want to go out in the blustery weather for a hike?' My Christmas present was a really nice, fancy backpack that he got me and the ring turned out to be inside the backpack. When I got to the top and opened the backpack I thought, 'what a lovely jewellery box' and inside it had will you marry me and I was so happy. He did well.

"It's a lovely antique ring. I can wear it when I'm skiing because my hands get so cold that it doesn't come off. If I'm feeling down I take a look at it and think how lovely it is."

Gerard has the approval of Kelly's mum, Margaret. Hearing the skier talk about her fiancé, you get the feeling her late dad Patrick would like the husband to be too.

"My family were all pleased. I'm very close to my mum. She has always been there. She doesn't know anything about ski racing but she is so important to what I do," says Kelly.

Whether the 2018 Winter Paralympics will be Kelly's last major event, we shall wait and see. Post-skiing career, the mathematics graduate already knows what she will be doing.

"Last year I went back to work with the civil service. I adored it. I was working for Northern Ireland Statistics and Research in the programme for government. I really enjoyed using my brain. I didn't know if I would like going back but I would do it again," she adds.

And next time Kelly may have more than one Winter Paralympics gold medal to show off as well as her engagement ring.

Belfast Telegraph

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