On a wing and a prayer

On a wing and a prayer Kelly Gallagher
Olympian Kelly Gallagher is passionate about helping visually-impaired children in the developing world, writes Michael Kelly

When one thinks of sports that Irish Olympians have excelled at in recent years boxing and show jumping are probably the first things that come to mind. But what about the winter Olympics? Most people draw a blank.

It’s this perception that Co. Down-based Kelly Gallagher (30) is changing. In 2010 she became the first athlete from Northern Ireland to compete in the Winter Paralympics. Just four years later, in Sochi, she won the first ever Winter Paralympic gold medal representing Team GB.

When one reflects on the fact that the genetic condition oculocutaneous albinism severely limits her sight, the success is all the more impressive.

It was while on holidays with her parents that winter sports first emerged as an option. They had been on holidays in France and took the option to visit the Marian shrine at Lourdes.

“Lourdes was really lovely,” she recalls. And, after praying at the grotto, the family holiday continued. It was on a stopover in the tiny principality of Andorra, nestled in the eastern Pyrenees that Kelly first thought of the slopes.

Ski lesson

“We were looking around and I decided to have a ski lesson and really enjoyed it. I remember, I took to it very intuitively and really enjoyed it,” she recalls. And the rest is history. She returned home and after more lessons and soul searching, decided to quit her job to enrol at the Sports Institute and take up skiing full time.

When I meet Kelly in the lobby of a Dublin hotel she wears her talent lightly gently dropping in to conversation phrases like “when we won the medal” and “being an Olympian”. Yet, there is no smugness or grandiosity. “I’m known as a skier,” she observes, before quickly backtracking and adding with a laugh “well, not really known at all”. She is witty and humorous, qualities that one imagines are vital during the long days and weeks spent in virtual isolation during training camps.

Kelly was determined from a young age that her visual impairment wouldn’t hold her back.

“Within sport, there are so many people who have overcome so much. Within the disabled skiing community, you don’t see anyone being anything but encouraging and showing you how they’ve done it before.

“Outside of that, I had never been brought up to think ‘oh, if someone hasn’t done it before it isn’t for me’. I had always been brought up with encouragement,” she says.

Kelly admits that the main challenge she struggles with is the same thing facing every amateur athlete: “A lack of funding and that kind of support rather than a lack of imagination or a lack of encouragement.”

While she feels greatly supported, she is frustrated sometimes that Paralympic sports do not receive the attention they deserve.

“With Paralympic sport, and winter sport and women’s sport, there’s still an idea that it’s not that important. In the media, it’s not covered to the same extent, so people don’t really know about you,” she says.

However, her experience has been that when people do know, “they are delighted to get behind local Paralympic hopefuls”. However, she is convinced that “while we really only have coverage of the major professional sports it’s hard to get commercial sponsorship from businesses because their money is better invested in their local GAA club, in their local rugby club – in something where they’re actually going to get coverage.

“So I can see it from a business point of view: Paralympic sports isn’t there yet, hopefully in 20 or 30 years whenever there are younger Paralympians, coming up they’ll have a far easier time”.


Kelly made her Paralympic debut in Vancouver in 2010, finishing fourth and sixth in two disciplines; the same year, her father, who was a pilot, was diagnosed with cancer in his left eye. He had the eye removed – then set about regaining his flying licences. Kelly recalls his return to the skies as a “very special time”.

But, just months later, in a cruel twist of fate, a routine MRI scan revealed that her father’s cancer had returned, and was inoperable. Kelly was recovering from injury and so was able to be with him for his last months – “maybe my own injury was fortunate” – and she felt relieved that his suffering wasn’t prolonged. His death in 2012 left her with a stark choice. “I was either going to throw everything I had at my racing, or I was going to leave. And it didn’t feel right to leave”.

“When I started skiing, it was just for pure enjoyment. But then I figured out there were other people who were visually-impaired and they were racing, and I wanted to have a go just to see what it was like. So I got involved, and once I had done my first races and saw that I could possibly get to the Olympic Games, that was my goal, and then when I got to the games in 2010 and did okay, but not amazing, I was thinking to myself well, if I can get training, and improve myself, hopefully in four years’ time, I’ll be able to challenge for a medal and then Sochi was my goal.

“It was never really my goal from the very start, but as I got more and more involved, I started to love it more and more, and after Daddy died, I gave it everything,” she says.

The Sochi Winter Olympics took place against a backdrop of criticism of the increasingly-authoritarian regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some even advocated a boycott. But Kelly is clear, the political temperature is not something that athletes can let affect them.

“In my life outside of skiing, I have opinions and think different things and have different ideas about so many different things, but in skiing I had worked for five or six years to get to those games.

“You can’t let it be part of your business if your business is to win a gold medal, and that it what I was going there for,” she says with the confidence that, perhaps, only an Olympic gold medallist can manage.

And how was winning the gold medal? “It was more of a relief the a dream come true, because I had been working at it for so long, winning quieter races where there was no coverage.

“When we won our gold medal, a lot of the media were talking about how we were unknowns, we were only unknowns because they hadn’t been covering our sport!” she says.

Kipling’s advice is to treat triumph and disaster as “two impostors just the same”. And for Kelly, as well as success, there are failures too and Sochi was no different. “I had skied in the downhill two days earlier, and I had done really poorly. I was so miserable because I couldn’t understand how I had done so badly. I went to the church in the Olympic village to sit there and be miserable, because you can’t sit around with all your team mates and be miserable because they’re all competing and need to keep focused.

“The church was a place where I could find quiet time and reflect. I had a good old cry to myself, and tried to pick myself up. So, when I won the medal two days later, you are also presented with a bouquet of flowers, and I thought to myself, ‘now, I have to give something back to my little quiet place’, so I brought my flowers back and laid them in the church,” she recalls.


Like many people, Kelly is slow to talk about her faith. But it is clearly an important part of her life. “You end up questioning lots of things when you’re in sport. People think that sport is fair, sport is not fair, sometimes you’ll be disqualified for a wrong reason, or you won’t compete as well as you know you can.”

But then other times, it’s almost as if she can feel the hand of God, she says. “You’ll do one race and you’ll wonder was that me doing that, or was it like Jesus or God helping me.

“There are many times as well when I’ve been injured that I’ve had to rely on my faith. Then with my father dying, faith was so important,” she says.

Kelly hesitates before sharing another anecdote with me. “I don’t know if this is too rude,” she wonders aloud, “but here goes.”

“My mum is very worried about me when I race, because we’re racing at speeds of 70mph, and I remember her saying to me one time, ‘I prayed for you, and I prayed for Our Lady to put her cloak of safety around you’ and I remember saying ‘could you make sure the cloak is light and streamlined, so it doesn’t slow me down, but will protect me at the same time!’

“When you’re doing something dangerous, or something that’s risky, you do hope that God is protecting you. Prayers definitely don’t go a miss – I do end up praying and relying on my faith so much,” she says.

In between training and competing, Kelly is working with the agency Sightsavers to help change perceptions of people with disabilities in developing countries to ensure they have the same opportunities as anyone else.

“The work I’m doing with Sightsavers is all about social inclusion in an educational setting.

“For me, I’m known for being a ski racer, and I have a visual impairment. But, I was very lucky to go to primary school and be included in mainstream secondary school, and then again in university, and university was hard, but the opportunity to go to mainstream schools meant I was able to get a degree, I was able to apply for a job in the civil service.

“The fact that I had a job meant that I was able to leave my job and go ski racing. It opened up so many opportunities for me to be independent and guide my own destiny,” she says.

Around 57 million children worldwide are still out of school and at least 19 million have a disability. In most developing countries children with disabilities are more likely to be out of school than any other group of children.

Kelly has travelled to Senegal in West Africa to witness a Sightsavers pilot programme to include children with visual impairments in mainstream schools. She met with a number of children who, thanks to specially trained teachers and equipment such as Braille, are now able to attend school and learn alongside their peers.

Kelly is adamant that a quality education is one of the keys to empowerment; raising self-esteem, gaining employment and lifting people out of poverty.

“I remember going into my primary school class and it essentially being me as the visually impaired child, the teacher as the teacher, and the other children as learners. I felt excluded, even though I was within the classroom. And although I had the right to be there, I’m not entirely sure the teachers were prepared with how to cope with a child with a visual impairment.

“The teachers I met in Senegal however are much more prepared. They’re able to make Braille, write in Braille and check the work in Braille. And they’re doing it in a way that ensures every child in the class is working. For me, that is true inclusivity,” she says.

The children who remain out of school are those who are the most marginalised and hardest to reach, including those with disabilities, girls, children in fragile and conflict-affected states, those from ethnic minority backgrounds and children who live in remote rural areas or slums.

Children will “never be able to transform their own lives unless they are in school and can get an education,” Kelly insists. Sightsavers are currently working with teachers in 30 countries to help them include children who are visually impaired in their classes. “These physical difficulties shouldn’t be a barrier to education, and the ideal situation is that these children can attend the local school, and be taught by the local teacher, and go to school with people they know rather than having to go off on to the school for the blind, and live there with other blind teenagers.

“For me, working with Sightsavers is very special. Imagine if I hadn’t have had the opportunities I had, I wouldn’t be sitting here now, and it wouldn’t have been because of aptitude for learning, it would’ve been because of a stigma or because our community hadn’t decided that it’s good to have children in school”.

And, it’s not only good for the child who has a disability or a visual impairment, it’s good for all the other children too and the wider community. If you reflect society within the classroom, it helps society grow together.

What does the future hold? “I’m skiing with a different girl now, Charlotte [Evans], the girl I was skiing with is going off to persue different things…I’m seeing how we can get on this season, be safe and be fast, so I’ll be able to come back in March or April and be able to say clearly that I’m going to the games in 2018 in South Korea – that’s my goal.

“I also want to pay more attention to my family and friends,” she says.

When we meet, Kelly is about to head off for more training meaning she will leave friends and family behind. But, in the isolation, her faith also helps her find peace and solace. “Whenever I am in Austria, on my day off, I love to go for a walk. I’ve been to so many Austrian churches, and they’re on beautiful hill sides, and I find great peace there.

“So, it’s like my thing now, whenever I go to a new resort, I have a look and find the local church and it’s really special to me. It’s really beautiful to go to Mass, and it’s all in German, so I don’t understand any of it, but it’s a really beautiful experience for me,” she says.


Her wanderings in Austrian valleys have also opened up a new spirituality that combines faith and nature. “Quite often in the valleys there are beautiful walks set out with the Stations of the Cross, so you’re getting a really lovely walk but also a spiritual experience. The Alps are dotted with crosses, and grottos, and tiny little churches, it’s a constant reminder of faith and spirituality.

“It’s much more traditional, everything closes on a Sunday, and it’s wonderful to hear the church bells and understand that faith is real and present. We’re like little travellers that are always going to Mass in different parts of the world, but it’s really lovely to see how people are practising Catholicism or Christianity in very different parts of the world and what it means to them,” she says.