Paralympic gold medalist Kelly Gallagher is almost blind and can ski down slopes at 60mph, but says disabled people face uphill battle
The UK's first ever Paralympic gold medal skier, Kelly Gallagher from Bangor, tells Stephanie Bell being named Belfast Telegraph Sportswoman of the Year 2015 gave her the opportunity to press for mainstream schools to allow more children with disabilities into the classroom
It may be two years away but Kelly Gallagher is already in training for the next Winter Paralympics and is once again focused on doing her country proud and bringing home gold.
The winner of the Belfast Telegraph Sportswoman of the Year 2015 made history when she became Britain's first ever gold medal winner at the winter Paralympics in Sochi in 2014.
Kelly was one of seven skiers from Great Britain and Northern Ireland to finish first in the visually impaired Super-G competition.
The 30-year-old from Bangor also started this year on a high when she brought home another gold medal after winning the World Cup slalom final in Aspen, Colorado in February.
It is her biggest win since Sochi and, while she is thrilled, she sees it as another step towards her main focus - a second Paralympics gold medal.
"It is two years to the games and that seems like a long time but I am already training," she says.
"The World Championships are next year and I have a new guide so we are just spending as much quality time on the snow as we can to build up trust for the next games.
"I am aiming for gold. I do feel the competitiveness in me and I am really working hard to do my best.
"It was great to do so well in the World Cup earlier this year, and I also got a second and third, but the long focus is the games and getting gold.
"I still feel there are lots of things I want to do. And I am still learning each season how to be a better racer and improve technically.
"I enjoy it and, I think to be in any sport as long as you can enjoy it, you can perform. Obviously, I want to do the best I can."
After her success at Sochi she was also honoured to be awarded an MBE for services to sport for people with visual impairment.
As one of the UK's new sporting heroes, she found herself thrust into the world of celebrity, surprised to be included on VIP guest lists for top parties and events. But while mingling with pop stars and royalty at the likes of Wimbledon and Ascot was a bit of fun, it is not where this local star wants to be.
More comfortable out of the spotlight, Kelly prefers to use any celebrity that has come with her success as an opportunity to promote her other great passion - equality for disabled people, especially children.
During her sporting career Kelly has always flown the flag for disability, inspiring others through her own courage and achievements.
She is an ambassador with the charity Sight Savers and last year she visited pupils with visual impairments in west Africa where she spoke at a school. She shared her experiences of growing up blind as part of a pilot programme to include visually impaired children in schools.
Kelly was born with a condition called oculocutaneous albinism which affects the pigment in her skin and eyes, and caused her to be partially sighted.
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. She has a love for maths, which she studied at Bath University, and works for the Civil Service where she has been granted a career break to pursue her skiing career.
"This for me is really important - to see children with visual impairments included in mainstream classrooms," she says.
"What I have achieved gives me a chance to have a platform to talk about more important things than me.
"I do what I can to support Sight Savers and advocate inclusiveness. If a person's disability doesn't affect their aptitude to learn, they should be in mainstream education.
"There is also a lot of work to do to promote Paralympic sports and women in sport. We just don't get the same coverage as other sports do. I am a fan of any sport on TV, but we are not getting the coverage.
"If being involved in skiing gives me the opportunity to promote that as well as equality for disabled people, then I will take whatever chance I get to do that.
She adds: "It's not just about winning, but about breaking down people's perceptions of others with disabilities and their identities. And it is so exciting for me to be able to do that."
Kelly was 17 when she skied for the first time during a holiday in Andorra with her parents.
She fell in love with it and the sport soon became her passion.
Kelly can see only a blur of whiteness when she stands at the top of a mountain and depends on a guide to be her eyes.
It's a relationship of complete trust as Kelly focuses on her guide's orange vest as they launch down the mountain sides at speeds of up to 60mph.
And since competing in her first Paralympics in Vancouver in 2009 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 at the New Zealand Winter Games.
Kelly was selected for the British team in the 2010 Winter Paralympics, becoming the first athlete from Northern Ireland to compete in the Winter Paralympics.
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, and went on to win a gold medal in the slalom at the 2011 European Cup Finals.
While competing at such a high level means most of her time is spent away from home training, when she is back in Bangor she cherishes the time she has with friends, family and her partner.
She is in a happy relationship, but keeps her personal life strictly private.
The gold medal-winning skier says: "With the team being based in England, I am away for seven to eight months of the year. While I don't mean to sound ungrateful, it is nice to get home and not be living out of a suitcase.
"It is just nice to be here and be able to plan things, even just meeting a friend for coffee.
"I can see how retirement would be a lure at some stage as I love being at home."
Kelly was thrilled to pick up the Belfast Telegraph Sportswoman of the Year Award, but her training schedule unfortunately meant that she couldn't be at our event to pick up her trophy in person. Her mum Margaret and sister Petrenna were there on her behalf, though, and it was her proud mum who took to the stage to collect Kelly's award.
She adds: "It was lovely to be recognised beside so many inspiring and progressive women in the Belfast Telegraph Awards.
"I think the awards are great to highlight different women here and promote a really good sense of pride in their achievements.
"It is really inspiring hearing all their stories and what people are coping with every day, and it is wonderful to highlight that."
Insurance firm adds vitality to the Telegraph awards
Active Financial Life is the sponsor for this year’s Sportswoman of the Year award.
The company was set up just two months ago by Breeda Toner, an independent financial advisor, who also runs Bre-Ton Financial Services.
Her new company aims to promote a unique new insurance product called Vitality.
Vitality offers life and health insurance policy holders incentives to keep themselves fit and healthy by offering rewards, as well as helping people find ways to improve their health.
Breeda was delighted to come on board as a sponsor for the Belfast Telegraph Awards, in association with The OUTLET, Banbridge, which she saw as a perfect fit for her new business.
She says: “I decided to get involved with the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year event as I wanted to help promote the fact women in business here are now receiving greater recognition for their achievements.
“I left a successful career in banking as I wanted to improve my work/life balance,” Breeda recalls, adding “there is a lack of gender diversity in business”.
“Sponsoring the Sportswoman of the Year category is the perfect opportunity to promote the success of a local woman in this field. It also provides an excellent platform for Active Financial Life which promotes the rewards from Vitality — an innovative product aimed at encouraging people to be healthier and get fitter, therefore protecting and improving the quality of their lives.
“People involved in sport are the ideal role models as they are committed to a healthy and active lifestyle.”
Breeda explains: “Vitality encourages people to lead a healthier life and rewards them for doing so. The choices we make affect our health so if we stop smoking, watch what we eat and drink, and exercise regularly, we are less likely to get ill, and therefore less likely to make claims on our insurance policies. With this ethos in mind, Vitality passes back the saving to the customer by offering rewards.”
She adds: “I want to get out there and promote — not only Vitality rewards, but also to discuss the big difference between serious illness and critical illness. Many people are paying premiums for products and, in some cases, don’t actually know what they are covered for.”
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