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Star for all seasons chases a piece of history

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

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Clinical Trials

"There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"

The famous words of American politician Robert Kennedy are favourites of Jessica Gallagher.

Gallagher has a rare eye disorder called cone dystrophy. With eight per cent central vision, she is legally blind. But while Gallagher sees little, she dreams big when it comes to her sporting passions. She asks the question of things that never were, and makes them reality.

In March, in the Canadian ski resort of Whistler, she became the first Australian woman to win a medal at a Winter Paralympic Games. What made Gallagher's bronze in the slalom even more special was that it came on her 24th birthday and after the heartbreak of being denied at the last minute the right to compete in athletics at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.

People in athletics had told her she would never make it in Paralympic skiing, having never skied until 14 months before the Games, but Gallagher said: ''Why not?''

With only 150 days on skis under her belt, she ended up defeating women who had spent most of their lives skiing. Now Gallagher is determined to achieve another first - become the first Australian athlete to win a medal at both the winter and summer Paralympic Games.

"When I told the athletics coaches that I was going to attempt to be a skier, a lot of them said there was no way that I was going to be successful in such a short period of time … but once I set myself a goal I know that I'm going to achieve it regardless of what anyone else says," Gallagher says. "No Australian athlete has ever won a medal at a summer and winter Games, and some people say I'm crazy for doing summer and winter [sports], but why not attempt it?"

The moment Gallagher got back to Australia from the Vancouver Paralympics earlier this year, she refocused all her attention on getting to the London Paralympics in 2012 to compete in long jump and javelin. The national athletics championships were only three weeks after the Vancouver Games, and she needed to produce qualifying distances at those championships to earn a place at the International Paralympic Committee athletics world championships in New Zealand next month.

Even though she missed all of the last athletics season due to her Vancouver preparations on the ski fields, Gallagher did exactly that. Since then, her athletics training has been interrupted by a hamstring strain and hip trouble, but she now has the body right and is training six days a week.

Gallagher believes she will claim a medal in both events in New Zealand, "Hopefully gold … it's just a matter of getting the job done on the day."

When it comes to assessing what will be needed to win a medal in the javelin, Gallagher says: "It's a little bit difficult to say. It's a new event for the vision-impaired women. After Beijing they dropped shot put and discus … and added the javelin, so this is the first international meet where we've had javelin."

She hopes to throw about 40 metres. Gallagher says learning javelin has been a challenge, but she was lucky enough to get in a bit of coaching before the nationals from the great German Uwe Hohn, the only man to have thrown a javelin more than 100 metres. "That helped a lot to have such an amazing coach teach me my very first lessons of how to throw a javelin," Gallagher says. "It definitely helped me learn things a lot quicker."

She has developed further under regular coach Tom Hancock. Growing up, Gallagher always had trouble with her vision, but it wasn't enough to stop her becoming an elite netballer and basketballer. She was in year 12 when her degenerative condition was finally diagnosed.

Gallagher could lose all her sight at any time, but she appreciates what she can see and that she still has "an amazing life getting to represent Australia in sport, which is what I wanted to do as a kid growing up. There are so many other things out there that are much worse than being blind."

Gallagher was 21 when she contacted the Australian Paralympic Committee and sat down with its talent search manager to see what her options were. In year 12 she had made the Victorian state finals as a triple jumper. But there is no triple jump at the Paralympics, so she settled on long jump and decided to have a go at sprints and throws just 18 months out from Beijing. In the end, Gallagher was selected to go to Beijing in the long jump, discus, shot put and 100m, but her sight then was not as poor as it is now.

"I had eye tests done the day before the opening ceremony, and unfortunately my right eye was eligible but my left eye was deemed 0.01 of a per cent true sighted, and so was told that I was not going to be eligible to compete in Beijing, but would … definitely be eligible for Vancouver."

Gallagher stayed in Beijing as a medical officer utilising her skills as an osteopath, but there was major disappointment because she had worked so hard and her form suggested she would have won three medals, two of them gold.

Luckily, Gallagher had mentioned to someone from the APC that she had spent two winters in the US snow resort of Vail on a working holiday, but had only been a snowboarder. The information was passed on to the APC's alpine skiing coach, Steve Graham. "Steve identified that I was a potential for Vancouver and was fast-tracked from there," she says.

Gallagher says winning bronze in Vancouver was "the best day of my life''. ''It's made everything worth it."

 

Copyright © 2010 Fairfax Media.

Author: By Daniel Lewis
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald
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