How Kelly Gallagher's late dad's courage inspired the blind skier to stay on course
Winner of the Belfast Telegraph Sports Star with a Disability Award, Bangor's Kelly Gallagher in interview with Stephanie Bell
Life took something of a surreal turn for Bangor ski racer Kelly Gallagher after she hurtled into the history books last March as the first British competitor to finish first at the Winter Paralympics. Unexpectedly for Kelly, her new status as a national sports hero brought with it the trappings of stardom as she suddenly she found herself on VIP invitation lists along with Royalty, heads of state and celebrities.
Almost a year on, she still finds it amusing and giggles as she recalls those first heady months after the victorious moment she and her guide and best friend Charlotte Evans stood on the podium at Sochi in Russia to pick up their Gold Medals at the Games.
"We had the best time gallivanting all over the place," she says. "We were getting all sorts of invitations to the likes of Ascot and Wimbledon. I walked in to Wimbledon and Bobby Charlton said 'Hello Kelly, how are you' as if he had known me all his life.
"The Beckhams were there but Charlotte and I were too shy to talk to them, although my mum talked to David Beckham.
"Victoria Beckham tweeted us after we won and I remember Charlotte jumping round our room saying 'Do you think she knows who we are?'.
"I know I did something really special, but I also know there are people who have to get up at 6.30 in the morning and go and spend the day doing a mundane job, so it all seemed a bit surreal to us."
It's the morning after a late night celebrating picking up the Belfast Telegraph Sports Star with a Disability Award and she is still on a high.
She looked stunning in a figure-hugging green sequined evening dress as she took to the stage at our 20th anniversary gala event to collect her award last Monday night.
She was especially thrilled to be shortlisted in the overall Sports Star of the Year Award, which was won jointly by Rory McIlroy and Carl Frampton.
She says: "It was just great to be there as it's the middle of the season and I am usually away. My sister insisted I get my hair and my make-up professionally done and I felt like a princess.
"It was brilliant to win the award and to be presented with it by Mary Peters was really special as well.
"I couldn't believe that my name was mentioned in the main category along with people like Rory McIlroy and Carl Frampton, and the fact that it is changing perceptions. It's nice coming from an amateur sport to be up there with the professionals."
Kelly (29) is an interviewer's dream. She chats with enthusiasm on every subject and you can feel her passion when she talks about her sport, her disability, her family and her friends.
She was born with a condition called oculocutaneous albinism, which affects the pigment in her skin and eyes and which has caused her to be only partially sighted.
Even as a child she didn't let her disability hold her back and credits her mum Margaret and her late dad Patrick with giving her the encouragement to succeed at whatever she put her mind to.
Launching herself down mountains at 60mph despite her visual impairment takes the kind of courage and determination which champions are made of and while her gold medal means the world to her, Kelly is just as thrilled that her achievements have shown that the mountains are not just for what she calls elite athletes.
"There were a lot of firsts," she says. "We were the first women to do it, the first from Northern Ireland and we were the first British competitors, and all that is really exciting for me. But it's not just about the personal acclaim, it's also about breaking down people's perceptions of people with disabilities and their identities and it is so exciting for me to be able to do that.
"Just to think that the parents of a wee baby diagnosed with a disability or a young person who is visually impaired can believe that things are possible and that they are not cordoned off because of their disability means everything to me.
"It was so exciting to have it on television so that people could see that it is competitive. Plus, instead of seeing the disability first they could see the athlete first and instead of seeing the visual impairment first they saw the ski racer first."
Kelly, who was also awarded an MBE last year along with Charlotte in recognition of her achievement at Sochi, grew up in a household where her disability was never seen as a barrier to anything.
As the youngest of eight children she was encouraged by her parents to do everything that her brothers and sisters did.
She has a love for maths, which she studied at Bath University, and works for the Civil Service; she is due to return to her job this April after a five-year career break to pursue her ski racing career.
Growing up, she was cosseted within her family, adored by everyone as the youngest child and was especially close to her dad who died just over two years ago from cancer and who she says inspired her to aim high in her sporting career.
His loss was a massive blow and she still feels it acutely. "I think if you asked my older brothers and sisters they would say I was a proper daddy's girl, although mum pretty much does everything for me too," she says.
"My dad died two and half years ago and it is still a bit of a struggle. I still don't speak about him in the past tense.
"I was always really encouraged and never told that I could not do things by my parents. If my brothers and sisters were trying something new like swimming or stuff I was never told 'You're blind so you can't do it'.
"Dad was an inspiration. He was a commercial pilot and even after he lost an eye through cancer he was determined to fly again and he did and he got his licence back.
"Everything in our house was about aviation and dad's attitude was if you really like something and it makes happy then do it - that's the kind of home I came from.
"In the end, even when he was told he only had a year to live he didn't give up but kept going and tried to stay healthy and tough and strong. It was pretty inspiring to see someone who is told there is no hope get themselves in order and continue to look after me and mummy and my brothers and sisters.
"It makes me feel really amazing as a person and really happy to be related to someone so fantastic."
Kelly was 17 when she skied for the first time during a holiday in Andorra with her parents. She loved it straight away and it soon became her passion. At university she got two jobs, using the money she earned to pay for ski holidays with her friends.
She says: "I just stood on top of the mountain and thought 'This is amazing'. It felt like it was intuitive and good to be able to move and it came back to that atmosphere of encouragement I grew up in.
"I fell in love with it and I remember thinking you wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world as it was beautiful, a total delight."
Kelly can see only whiteness when she stands at the top of a mountain. She likens it to looking at an over-exposed photo. She depends on Charlotte, her friend, and guide to be her eyes.
It's a relationship of complete trust and the two girls are now so in sync with each other that as they communicate through a two-way Bluetooth headset they can even read each other breaths.
All Kelly sees as they launch down the mountain is Charlotte's orange vest.
"Before we set off Charlotte takes in everything - where the trees are, the lumps and bumps in the snow, how wide the slope is and how long it is," she says.
"I'm in a cocoon just focusing on Charlotte. I sneak in behind her and we talk on a phone placed inside our helmets.
"We have our own little shorthand speech and she will tell me 'Go right, go left' or if there is a bump or a change in terrain. It's very similar to having a navigator in a car. Because we have worked so long together things as simple as a big breath out for Charlotte alerts me and we are aware of how each other are breathing. What we have between us is unique and it's based on understanding that safety is paramount. I know it sounds cheesy but we know each other and care about each other very much."
While she trusts Charlotte implicitly, she admits it is impossible not to feel fear as you take off into the unknown at speeds of up to 60mph.
But the adrenalin rush and a feeling which she describes as being like no other keeps her going, along with the knowledge that despite her visual impairment this is something she can do for herself. "It makes me feel alive. I imagine it's the same as driving a really fast car at high speed."
When she got the chance to compete in her first Paralympics in Vancouver, Canada, in 2009 she decided to take a career break and become an athlete full-time.
Since then there has been no stopping her. At her first event she finished fourth and sixth in two disciplines. She won her first gold in her first ever international race in the same year in the giant slalom in the New Zealand Winter Games.
She was selected for the British team in the 2010 Winter Paralympics, becoming the first athlete from Northern Ireland to compete in the tournament. She finished sixth in the slalom and achieved the British team's highest finish, missing out on a medal by just 3.36 seconds in the giant slalom.
In 2011 she became the first British athlete to win a medal at the IPC World Championships, picking up silver in the slalom and bronze in the giant slalom. Then she and Charlotte won a gold medal in slalom at the 2011 European Cup Finals.
Winning Britain's first ever Paralympic gold last year was the culmination of many months of focused training and preparation.
"I can't even explain how determined we were to win," she says. "Everything we had was focussed on it. We set our minds to it and we did it. It was the first time and something like that can't be changed, we will always be the first to have done it but that wasn't our goal, our goal was to win for us personally.
"All the able-bodied ski racers got behind us and for me being able to change people's perceptions of what alpine skiing is and what mountains are was just amazing.
"No one can deny that going down a mountain at 110kph isn't racing. Able-bodied skiers probably reach 120kph. And we are two people on the course and I can't see, so it is more of a challenge."
Charlotte paid tribute to her team at the Northern Ireland Sports Institute in Jordanstown for their support.
She is currently focused on the World Championships in March in Calgary. She holds a clutch of three silver and two bronze World Championship medals and is hoping this year will see her come home with her first gold. She is also preparing to return to the world of work at the Civil Service when her five-year career break comes to an end in April but will continue to compete while working full-time.
Outside of sport she says she has spent most of the past year and will spend most of this year being a bridesmaid for her friends.
"I am at the age when all my lovely friends are getting married. Last year, I was a bridesmaid three times and will be again this year. I've a hen party to go to next weekend," she says.
And as for her own love life, her lovely girly giggle returns when I ask her. She shyly admits there is someone special in her life at the minute but doesn't want to share any more details just yet.
Her slippery slope to success
- Kelly joined Britain's Disabled Ski Team for the 2008/09 season
- Visually impaired ski racers are guided through the alpine courses by a fully-sighted guide
- Kelly competes in all alpine disciplines: slalom, giant slalom, super-G, downhill and combined
- Kelly, with her first guide, Claire Robb, won a gold medal in their first international race in August 2009 at the Winter Games in New Zealand
- She began training with her new guide, Charlotte Evans, at the end of 2010
- They achieved second place in the slalom and third in the giant slalom at the 2011 World Championships - the first time a British skier had won a medal at this level
- They were placed third overall in the Europa Cup in 2010/2011 and achieved their first gold medal in the slalom at the Europa Cup finals in La Molina, Spain in March 2011
- Since then, Kelly and Charlotte have won medals in all disciplines in both Europa Cup and World Cup competitions