Jessica Gallagher: Multi-talented Paralympic athlete

Jessica Gallagher is a multi-skilled Paralympic athlete and the first Australian to have won medals in both Summer and Winter games.

by Julia Migné

Alpine ski is one of the three Olympian disciplines in which Jessica competed at the Paralympics. Courtesy of Jessica Gallagher

Jessica has always been sporty; habitually playing netball and basketball since she was young. However, at 17, she was diagnosed with a rare eye disease called cone dystrophy. Her eyesight quickly deteriorated, and she is now classified legally blind.

A few years later, Jessica was invited by a friend to come to a ski resort in the US during her summer break. She jumped at the chance to try something new and learnt to snowboard. She discovered Paralympic sports when she came back to Australia and her talent was readily recognised within this athletic discipline. Always pushing herself, she then transitioned to alpine skiing and more recently to track cycling.

INKLINE talks to Jessica to know more about how she’s come out victorious despite seemingly irreversible hardships.

INKLINE: How did your Paralympic career start? 

Jessica: When I first heard about Paralympic sports, I started with athletics as I had done well in high school just from my netball and basketball training. I qualified for Beijing in 2008 but one of my eyes was deemed not eligible so I wasn’t able to compete. Around that time, the Australian alpine ski coach had discovered that I was a new athlete and that I had experience in the winter world, so I was offered an opportunity to learn how to ski.

The reason why I started track cycling was because of the 2012 London Paralympics. They dropped long jump, which was my main discipline, so to fulfil my longterm goal of becoming Australia’s first medalist in a summer and winter games, I needed to look elsewhere.

The speed and the adrenaline rush from skiing became a bit addictive, and the speed that we get out on the track cycling tandem worked for me. I’ve made the decision to stick with it for now with the Commonwealth Games in 2018 being hosted in Australia.

2016 Paralympic Games - RIO Brazil
Winning her first summer medal in Rio © Sport the library / Greg Smith

I: Where did that goal of becoming the first Australian to win medals at both Winter and Summer games come from?

J: It first dawned on me back in 2008-2009 when I was in Beijing. It was a devastating experience to be over there and to do everything that an athlete would do but compete; that was heartbreaking. The athletes in the event that I was competing in actually produced performances that were equal to mine, so I left that event feeling quite empty.

When I transitioned from alpine skiing, I progressed quite quickly and in 2010 when I won my winter Paralympic medal, I really thought that this actually could be something that I might be able to achieve. In January 2011, I had the Athletics World Championships and I won a silver in the long jump and a bronze in the javelin so that reinforced that idea that it was something that I could realistically achieve.

I: What’s the most important thing between you and your guides?

J: Trust is without a doubt the greatest skill required. In ski racing, it’s a lot more dangerous than in track cycling as you’re not connected to the ski guide. You have a headset inside your helmet and you communicate to one another through those. For me and other visually impaired athletes, we are not able to see the ground so we really have to trust what the ski guide is telling us and trust that the direction they are taking is correct.

It’s a really unique relationship that you have in sport and it gave me some great perspective and knowledge from having to rely on others so heavily. The reality is, it’s not just me out there on my own performing. If I don’t have that trust and relationship with my pilot or my guide then we can’t produce a successful performance.

I: It must be incredibly scary at first to go down a mountain without seing the ground!

J: Absolutely! When I first started learning how to ski, there was no way I ever imagined I’d ski as fast as I do now! But each day you do the best you can and you work towards little goals, and all of a sudden all those little goals turn into big achievements. The next thing you know is that you’re skiing much faster than you ever thought you would.

Jessica and Guide Eric Bickerton win a Bronze medal in the Vision Impaired Slalom © Sport the library/Courtney Crow

I: What’s the best advice someone ever gave you? 

J: My mum would always tell me to never have any regrets and to try everything. If I’d say no to all the different opportunities I never would have become a ski racer,  and I never would have become a track cyclist! I’ve had some amazing experiences just by actually saying yes to opportunities. If you believe in yourself and you’re willing to work hard for it, then you really can push the boundaries of what you think you’re capable of.

I: How do you balance your work as an osteopath with your training and involvement with various NGOs?

J: It’s not easy. Time management and organisation are really important. Probably the biggest skill is knowing what your priorities are. At the moment, my athletic career is still my number one priority and so I need to make sure that I get enough recovery and feel well. Being organised is just the most important thing; making sure I have time for myself as well is important.

As Paralympic athletes, we don’t receive lots of funding and so I need to continue working to pay my bills but it’s also great mentally to have that life. If I were just training full time, I would probably go a little crazy whereas it’s nice to be able to work as an osteopath; to help other people and the board.

The NGOs keeps me intellectually challenged. I spend the majority of my time physically challenging myself but having that opportunity to actually be passionate about other things is important to me.

2011 International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Athletics World Championships in New Zealand. Photo: John Cowpland/ALPHAPIX

I: What’s coming next?

J: I have the World Paracycling Track Championships in Los Angeles in five weeks. I’m looking forward to that and then in 2018 it’s the Commonwealth Games so that would be the next big athletics event for me. I had a difficult decision to make in that in 2018 there are the Winter Paralympics in South Korea in March and then the Commonwealth Games in April so I did want to do both but unfortunately they are too close.

I: Which advice would you give to our readers who wish to become Paralympic champions? 

J: Surround yourself with good people who will support you. It’s not easy and we are still working on things like equality as Paralympic athletes but the Paralympic movement is progressing.

Believe in yourself and if you’ve got a dream, work hard towards it and you’ll be able to achieve it. I’m a big believer that hard work really does pay off and I certainly experienced that for myself. When I’m talking to young kids with disabilities, it’s really about giving them that confidence that they can go out there and be the best version of themselves.

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