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Kelly Gallagher can be golden girl

By Steven Beacom

When Kelly Gallagher was 17 she stood at the top of a mountain in Andorra and prepared to ski down a steep slope for the first time in her life.

Kelly was, as she is now, partially sighted.

Tomorrow, 11 years on, the Bangor woman will start her bid to win gold at the Sochi Winter Paralympics.

It's an inspirational tale that could have the happiest of endings.

“I have been visually impaired since I was born,” explained Kelly, in Russia and raring to go in the Downhill, one of five events she will compete in.

“I have this condition which affects your eyes and your skin so I wouldn't have any pigment in my eyes or my skin or my hair.

“I was never told by my parents that I was disabled in any way. I knew I looked different when I was younger but I was always encouraged to do whatever I wanted to do and go and enjoy myself in whatever I was interested in.”

Kelly's mum and dad were true to their word on a family holiday when she was a teenager.

“When I was 17 my mum, dad and I went on a wee trip to Lourdes and Toulouse in France and we skied in Andorra,” recalls the 28-year-old.

“I took to it and really enjoyed it and felt a freedom that I hadn't found in other activities or sports. I wasn't scared at all. When I began skiing out in the mountains it felt quite intuitive to me.”

Bitten by the bug, Kelly wanted to take part in competitions. By 2009 she'd made her international debut and, having gained experience on the snow and respect from her peers, was selected by the Great Britain team to compete in the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics.

See what can be achieved when you put your mind to it.

She missed out on a medal finishing fourth in the Giant Slalom in Canada but felt “with hard work and smart skiing it would be possible to do better in the future.”

Finding the perfect skiing partner or guide to get down the mountain as fast as possible was also crucial.

Accomplished skier Charlotte Evans, from Kent, came on the scene and since then the County Down native has gone from strength to strength.

“Since being with Charlotte my approach to skiing has definitely changed. We train hard and work hard to see how fast we can go and how good my technique can become. I have learnt a lot from Charlotte and what she has brought from able bodied racing,” says Kelly, who then outlined her visual impairment.

“I would have trouble seeing most things whether they are close or far away. If you could see 60 metres with normal eyesight that object would have to be brought six metres towards me so that I could kind of make it out,” adds Kelly.

“When we ski Charlotte wears a fluorescent orange bib and she has her radio bluetooth communications so I can hear what she is telling me rather than relying on my sight.”

As you can imagine the trust between the two is unquestioned. So too the progress.

First teaming up at the IPC World Championships in 2011, they won silver medals in the Slalom and bronze in the Giant Slalom.

Two years later at the same event Kelly took home four medals... silver in the super-G and Super Combined disciplines and bronze in the Downhill and Giant Slalom.

Earlier this year she finished first in the Super-G, Super-Combined and Giant Slalom events at the World Cup.

In the Paralympics she will race in the Downhill tomorrow followed by the Super G, Super Combined, Slalom and Giant Slalom next week.

The pressure will be on to become Great Britain's first Winter Paralympic gold medallist.

“It's all about performing the best we can in Sochi now,” says the Sports Institute Northern Ireland athlete.

“We'll put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be the best we can and what we are hoping for in Sochi is to get to the bottom and know we couldn't have done any better.”

Kelly is honest enough to admit that like other top sports stars, she has had to become selfish to reach the top of her field.

“Skiing used to be my hobby but it has taken over my life. I get told by friends and my coach to switch off but it is really hard to leave it behind because you are always trying to be better.

“Even if I'm going out for an evening to celebrate a success I'll cut it short so I can recover better.

“For the last four years Charlotte and I have put skiing ahead of everything. You end up being quite selfish as an athlete and do things to suit yourself and your sport.

“I'm lucky though to have always had the support of my family, which I appreciate.”

Gallagher says she is inspired by compatriots like runners Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop, multiple winners at the Paralympics.

When I tell her she's pretty inspirational herself, for the first time in the interview this impressive lady pauses before answering.

“Being so single minded and focused you don't really think that other people are watching you,” says Kelly.

“I'm actually flattered when people want to interview me. It's great that there is coverage of our sport in Northern Ireland and maybe if there is a family out there who see an article like this and are thinking about taking a skiing holiday, like mine did, that their visually impaired son or daughter could go along and enjoy it too.

“During the World Cup when I was doing well I Skyped my young niece and asked her if she missed me and she said ‘how can I miss you... you are in the paper every day!'”

Kelly laughs at the memory. Here's hoping her niece is seeing a lot more of her in this paper in the coming days.

What I do is like competing in the NW200 or being a jockey, says ski champ

Kelly Gallagher has likened the buzz she gets from skiing to that which a motorcycle rider experiences at the North West 200.

The difference is that the bikers see where they are going... visually impaired Kelly has to rely on a guide to help her down the slopes.

The Bangor woman says: "When you are pushing it to go down the mountain as fast as you can, that's when you get a bit anxious and you start asking yourself 'I wonder can I do this?' But you realise the more you do it what you can actually achieve.

"I guess it's a bit like horse racing or those mad men who do the North West 200.

"It's that type of buzz," adds Kelly, an energetic and lively character who you take to immediately.

"We reckon we go at 60mph in the Downhill. Slalom is more about being precise and dynamic and agile rather than speed but in Downhill it's around 60mph."

Kelly won the Sports Person with a Disability prize at the 2013 Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards. Proud mum Margaret (pictured) collected the prize.

Margaret, who was Kelly's first guide down the slopes, plans to be in Russia to see her daughter hopefully clinch what would be the biggest honour of all... Winter Paralympics gold.

Given Kelly's form entering the Games, she is expected to triumph in at least one of her five events, but the inspirational woman herself is quick to point out that she competes in an unpredictable sport.

"In ski racing anything can happen... every race is different. Anyone could win," says Kelly.

"The favourites aren't always the people who win and that's one of the reasons I love skiing so much," explains Kelly.

"Once you get to the start gate all you can do is your best and see where it takes you," says the graduate in mathematics from the University of Bath.

As one of the most experienced in Britain's 10-strong alpine ski-team in Sochi, the former Glenlola Collegiate School pupil is relishing her role as mentor to some of the younger members.

She says: "We are quite a strong team but we are a tight team and are all looking forward to the Games.

"We've been training for so long and it's really exciting to all be together and ready to compete."

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