Eyes on the prize: Paralympian Jessica Gallagher was Australia' s second female Winter Paralympian, and the first Australian woman to win a medal at the Winter Paralympics.
"It's not possible" is a phrase that's not in the vocabulary of Dr Jessica Gallagher. At the moment the Geelong-born skiier is in intensive training to win a place in the Australian team for the London Paralympic Games later this year. Gallagher is not only an international medal winner on the snowfields, she is also one of Australia's athletics medal hopes. In 2008, she qualified for the Beijing Paralympics to compete in the long jump, shotput, discus and the 100 metres. Her personal bests eclipsed her nearest competitors and Gallagher was expected home with a medal, or two or three. But in the athletes' village, official tests found she had 0.01 of a degree too much sight in one eye and Gallagher, 26, was banned from competing. So she decided to learn how to snowboard and ski, simply for the thrill of learning a new sport. But Gallagher was soon being trained by Australia's head alpine ski coach and found herself at the Winter Paralympics in Vancouver in 2010. After only 150 days of training on skis, she won a bronze medal in the women's vision-impaired slalom, hurtling down the Canadian slopes at speeds of up to 100km/h. She became the first Australian woman to win a Winter Paralympic Games medal. With her sight having deteriorated further, Gallagher has packed away the skis for now to focus on winning the javelin and long jump in London. "It's hard with skiing and with track and field because they're very different sports with different demands, and there are more risks of injuries," she says. "Some people have been critical of me doing both skiing and athletics - but as long as I maintain what I'm doing, then I know I can win medals at both sports." Gallagher was born and raised in Geelong and sport was a big part of her life from primary school when her mother, Doreen, coached her daughter's school netball team. "Mum won a lot of best-and-fairest awards, and I remember sitting on the edge of the court watching her play netball and wanting to be like her," says Gallagher. So she started playing netball, and also discovered basketball at 13. Within a couple of years she was chosen as a shadow player for the Australian under-16 basketball team and represented Victoria in netball and basketball. "I trained most nights of the week and mum was my taxi driver. We made two or three round trips from Geelong to Melbourne every week so I could train. Mum and I spent a lot of time in the car," Gallagher says, laughing. But Gallagher had persistent trouble with her sight during her teens and remembers her mother taking her to four different optometrists to try to fix the problem. "I had trouble reading the board in class and I also had trouble reading things up close. I'd be prescribed glasses but they'd only correct one problem. Nobody picked up that I actually had an eye disease," she says. "By the age of 17 I remember coming home from school, going straight to my room, closing the door and the blinds and shutting out all the light because my eyes were so sore from straining to see things all day." About this time, early in her year 12 studies, Gallagher was referred to a specialist at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital. After a series of tests she was diagnosed with Best's disease, a rare, inherited form of macular degeneration that has gradually destroyed Gallagher's central vision. "I was at the national netball championships in Adelaide when I got a call from my specialist saying he had my test results and I needed to see him. Ironically, considering I was probably legally blind by then, I was playing goal attack. I don't know how I managed to shoot goals now," she says. "I was told the disease is very rare and most people with the condition are over the age of 50. I don't know why I've got it so young and it's hard to give a prognosis. "The worst-case scenario is I could lose my entire central vision, I just don't know. I've always felt there is nothing I can do about it so there is no point worrying. I make the most of what I do have. "I think mum took things the hardest. She felt the disease was her fault in some way." At the end of that year, Gallagher won her school's highest honour - the Best All Round Award. "Studying wasn't easy but my specialist put me in touch with Vision Australia and they talked to my teachers about what I could and couldn't see and advised them on the special considerations I needed to be able to learn," says Gallagher. She began studying osteopathy and was also determined to continue playing high-level sport. Gallagher retired from netball and when a friend working in Colorado as a ski instructor invited her to visit, she spent three months working at a restaurant on the mountains and teaching herself to snowboard. On her return, she contacted the Australian Paralympic Committee and was put in touch with track and field coaches. She also set her sights on the Beijing Games. "To be honest, I didn't know much about the Paralympics, but after I was diagnosed someone said, 'I wonder if you'd be eligible because of your vision impairment?'. I still had that competitive instinct." Eye tests in Australia indicated Gallagher would be eligible for the 2008 Paralympic Games, but the day before the opening ceremony, international classifiers tested Gallagher again and she was devastated to learn she would not be allowed to compete after all. "That was worse than being diagnosed with Best's disease. It was such an ironic twist of fate to have people tell you that you're not as blind as you'd been told," says Gallagher. "I'd progressed very quickly in my training and was expected to come home with medals. I'd partially deferred my studies at uni so I could train harder. It was heartbreaking. I still took part in the opening ceremony but for the first few days I was a mess." Gallagher remained with the team as a medical administrator because of her osteopathic training and after her initial disappointment she refocused on gaining as much as she could from being in Beijing. "The Australian Paralympic Committee CEO told me that usually nobody gets to experience a Paralympic Games before they compete in one, so I should make the most of it. When my time came I'd then be able to cope with the pressure of being part of the event," she says. "And at that stage I looked towards Vancouver in 2010. Leaving Beijing empty-handed with no medals and not even having represented Australia was the worst but it increased my motivation for Vancouver." Gallagher had been earmarked by Australia's Paralympic talent scouts as a potential winter Paralympian. "I was asked if I'd ever skied and said I was happy to give it a shot. So then I got a call from Steve Graham, the head alpine ski coach, and had my first day on skis on the bunny slopes at Thredbo," says Gallagher. "I kept training track and field but experienced as many different types of conditions on skis as possible - different runs, different snow and weather conditions. I knew it was going to be tough though because the girls I'd be racing against had grown up on skis and I was only just learning." After Beijing, Gallagher spent three months in Colorado taking part in a program for Paralympic skiers. She linked up with Eric Bickerton, the guide who now helps her negotiate mountain racecourses around the world. "Eric wears a fluoro bib and skis seven to 10 metres in front of me. We both wear earpieces in our helmets and a microphone. He skis down ahead of me and guides me down. There's a very fine line between getting it right and getting it very wrong." Gallagher excelled in slalom racing and in 2009, at the New Zealand Winter Games, she won gold in her first international ski event. But one of her proudest moments so far has been winning bronze at the Vancouver Paralympics. It's an achievement she hopes to repeat in London on the athletics field. "I didn't expect to be racing in Vancouver on my birthday. I thought I'd have a week of training, but the race organisers switched events around because of the snowfall. They brought forward the slalom," she says. "I had a good vibe about the whole thing, went out there, put in a solid first run and did the same on my second run to secure third spot. I couldn't read the results board when I crossed the line but I could hear people cheering and screaming. It was incredible to stand on the medal podium. "At the presentation the media pack gave me flowers for my birthday, and that's when I found out I was the first Australian woman in Paralympic history to win a medal at the Winter Paralympics. "It doesn't matter if you have a disability of any kind. You can do what you want to do in life - I'm proof of that." The opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Paralympic Games is on August 29. www.london2012.com