Can you introduce yourself and give us an overview of your titles and career?
My name is Jess Gallagher and I am the first Australian athlete, Olympic or Paralympic, to win medals at both summer and winter Games.
I have won two winter Paralympic bronze medals – Vancouver 2010 (Slalom, Sochi 2014 Giant Slalom) and Rio 2016 (tandem 1km Time Trial).
I have represented Australia in 3 Paralympic sports (alpine skiing, athletics and track cycling). I am the current World Champion and world record holder in the tandem match sprint. Outside of sport I am an Osteopath, Board Director and global ambassador for Vision 2020 Australia and ambassador for Vision Australia.
You were diagnosed with a rare eye disease in year 12 of school. How did your diagnosis make you feel and how did it affect your dreams of the future?
It turned my world upside down. I was suffering severe headaches and eye soreness but never expected such a significant diagnosis as being told that I was legally blind. I didn’t know how to feel or who I was now that I had this diagnosis or what it meant for my life.
Despite having so much support from my family I didn’t know who I was because the dreams and goals I had were now in doubt. What could I do when my eye sight was getting worse? It was a new world I didn’t understand and couldn’t comprehend how it would alter my future endeavors.
You had grown up playing both netball and basketball, what made you decide to continue in sport once you had received your diagnosis?
Sport has always been a part of my life. I grew up watching my Mum play and I wanted to be just like her. When I received the diagnosis I tried to play through but seeing the ball got so tough! Haha! It was so hard not being able to play anymore so I looked to find other sports and activities that I would love just as much.
How did you find transitioning to new sports following your diagnosis and what made you decide on those sports in particular?
Growing up my Mum always said to give everything a go because you never know if you might enjoy it so at high school I played every sport possible and tried everything else available (like music and dancing). I got into the different sports just by saying yes I’ll have a go and found so many different sports that I enjoyed!
The three Paralympic sports I have now competed in I certainly never imagined possible, but because I said ‘yes’ opportunities presented themselves.
How old were you when you realized you had the chance to become a champion? Was there a defining moment for you?
I don’t think I ever see myself as a champion. I do what I love, set myself goals and work hard to achieve them. I love the thrill and adrenalin of sport, chasing a dream and the challenges that come in trying to accomplish them each and every day.
I often forget how unique some of my accomplishments are because I’m just doing what I love and staying present in every moment. Now as I am focused on track cycling I find it so crazy I lived in another ‘world’ as a ski racer.
What was the driving force behind becoming a Paralympian, not just in one sport, but three, spanning both summer and winter Paralympics?
I certainly never intended on representing Australia in three sports! I didn’t know Paralympic sport existed until four years after my diagnosis and when I realized there was the ability for me as a vision impaired person to represent Australia in elite sport all my childhood dreams re-ignited, that passion for sport and competition.
I started athletics initially and then as I had previously spent time snowboarding was presented with a chance to learn to ski. Then after London 2012 my main athletics event was dropped from the Rio 2016 schedule and I was still dreaming of winning summer and winter Paralympics medals so took up track cycling! Each sport has come through unique opportunities and it has created an incredible journey for me.
At the 2016 Rio Paralympics you became the first ever Australian athlete, Olympic or Paralympic to medal at both a summer and winter games. How does this achievement make you feel?
Very proud! It was 2008 when the idea first entered my mind that maybe I could compete at both… but to medal at both is a dream come true. Along with many years of hard work and sacrifice. It still feels surreal that I have achieved it.
Have you had moments of doubt and how have you overcome them?
Yes! Every day I doubt myself in one way or another but I’ve learnt that it’s not a bad thing, it’s human nature and it’s ok! I accept the doubt, try to understand why I’m feeling like that then try and move onto a positive note.
I learn so much about myself when I’m doubting a decision, finding comfort in doubt is a skill I’ve learnt to embrace and love. It’s been paramount whilst trying to achieve something as difficult as medaling at a summer and winter Paralympics. Doubt and the thought processes after it ensure you understand the reasons why you actually want to do something.
What does self-belief mean to you and why is it important in your success?
I believe self-belief is one of the most important elements to happiness and success. There will always be people who don’t agree with you or doubt you. But if you truly believe in your capabilities then I think you can achieve anything.
You’re obviously extraordinarily talented physically, but what do you believe gives you the winning edge?
In any goal I set myself I am very committed and dedicated to it. I work hard and really believe that in believing in myself and knowing that I have done everything possible to be the best of my ability gives me every opportunity to achieve my goal.
Can you describe the dedication and commitment it took for you to reach these achievements?
Being a professional athlete is a 24/7 job. Every decision I make I ask myself if this will help me be the best I can be? It takes complete dedication and commitment but it is also important to recognize the varying parts of being an elite athlete, sometimes the right decision is to rest or to work towards other goals like my career.
You were first selected to represent Australia at the 2008 Beijing Summer Paralympics but were deemed ineligible to compete, due to being ‘too sighted’ by 0.01% in one eye. This must have been devastating for you. Were there moments where you felt like giving up? What kept you from doing so?
It was completely devastating and gut wrenching. I cried for 3 days straight. It was incredibly difficult and I spent as much time as possible trying to stay positive and making the most of the experience in knowing that one day I would be better from the experience.
There were times when I spent most of my days holding back tears but I got through it and certainly grew so much from those tough moments.
In 2012, you qualified to participate at the London Summer Paralympics, but tore your meniscus in your knee six weeks out from competition. Despite this injury and the affect it had both in training and competition, you participated in both long jump and javelin, finishing fifth and sixth in your events. How much of this do you attribute to physical ability and how much to sheer determination and courage?
Determination and courage were certainly the key to my ability to compete in London. Physically, my knee injury was very bad and I was forced to severely restrict my training in the lead up just so I could compete.
I was told by the doctors that I needed surgery right away but there was no way I was going to miss another summer Paralympics so I was given crutches to get around and had heavy strapping anytime I was allowed to complete a minor training session.
Competing in London was very difficult but when out in the stadium competing it was pure determination and courage that got me through.
How much of being a Paralympian is mental? Can your mind get in the way of your success?
Absolutely it can. In elite sport there is such little difference between athletes’ physical capabilities that it really comes down to having a good mindset.
There is an incredible amount of pressure and emotion when you are competing on the world stage in an event that only occurs every four years.
Your whole life has been dedicated to this event so when you finally reach it, naturally it can be overwhelming. A positive and strong mindset is paramount to giving yourself the best ability to succeed.
Can you describe for me the lead up to Rio? What was going through your mind in the moments leading up to the event?
Being my 5th Paralympics across summer and winter I have experienced a lot, highs and lows. Leading into Rio this previous experience really puts your mind at ease because you know you have dealt with challenges and adversities before so I was very calm and relaxed. I also think this comes down to knowing deep down inside that I had done everything possible to be the best I could possibly be. That brings a real sense of inner confidence. It was only a matter of executing and I knew I was ready.
Were there particular people in your life who were instrumental in making you believe you could become a history-making Paralympic champion?
Absolutely! No athlete can reach the Paralympics on their own and I have a fantastic support team around me starting with my Mum and my brother who have been there my entire life.
Having represented Australia in 3 sports now there have been many coaches and support staff come into my life who without there is no way I could have achieved what I have.
When I transition into a new sport I do not have the same level of knowledge as an athlete who has been in that sport there entire life, my support team fill the gaps in my ability and help me learn the new skills required in a very short period of time. It takes a tribe of people helping you.
How did you mentally overcome the people who doubted you or told you that you were not able to be the best in the world?
When I first started there were many people who said I couldn’t compete at the summer and winter Paralympics let alone medal in both and it would always upset me.
As I got older I learned that I didn’t need to take in opinions from people who weren’t in my support team.
I learned to only surround myself with those who truly believed in me. When I did succeed at any goal it was always that little bit sweeter knowing I had proved others wrong!
A lot of the great champions – Serena Williams, Michael Jordan, Conor McGregor, Jason Day – believe that visualisation has played a key role in their success. Do you believe that visualisation has been a key component of your success?
Visualisation has really helped me in particular my ski racing career. Being vision impaired and racing at high speeds is quite dangerous and the fear factor plays a large role in being able to succeed.
Being able to visualize myself skiing at high speeds made the achieving this in the ‘real’ environment that much more comfortable as I had already ‘been there, done that’. It makes an unknown situation known, despite it being a figment of your imagination.
If someone dreams of becoming an elite athlete, what advice would you give them?
Believe in yourself and love what you do. There will be many highs and lows along the journey but staying focused on what you want to achieve will allow you to overcome anything.
My lowest times were where I learn the most about myself, as an athlete and as a person. Embrace the challenges and always fight for what you believe you can be.
If someone is struggling with coming to terms with a new health diagnosis, what words of support could you offer?
Surround yourself with loved ones who can support you, acknowledge the diagnosis exists and if you can’t do anything about it, embrace it and any challenges that might come your way.
There will always be hard times, every day something challenges me but I see challenges as an opportunity to better myself, when you change to a positive mindset it is incredibly empowering. Always try and see things with a positive mind!
If you could re-visit yourself as a teenager, either before or after your diagnosis, what three pieces of advice would you give yourself?
The same 3 pieces of advice my Mum gave me when I was diagnosed.
- Try everything once – you never know where life can take you
- Make opportunities for yourself
- Have no regrets!
What is your favourite quote?
Why follow paths left by others when you can create your own path.
So, what is next for you?
Commonwealth Games, Gold Coast 2018!
Interview with Sharon Chisholm.
Sharon is an award-winning coach, mental health advocate, writer and speaker living on the east coast of Australia. She works with female entrepreneurs and small business owners helping them with a variety of challenges from low confidence and self-esteem, through to mind health issues such as anxiety and depression. Sharon writes for a number of publications and regularly speaks about her own lived experience with mental illness, as well as hosting her own podcast called the “Mental as Anything Podcast”. She also facilitates workshops on mental health in the workplace and advises government bodies on how they can better support the small business owner living with mind health issues.