Wow, what a legend! Australian Paralympic star Dr Jessica Gallagher was just 17 when she was diagnosed with a rare and degenerative eye disease, but that didn’t stop her from fulfilling her dream of becoming a pro-athlete.
The multi-award winning medalist would learn that the road to success would be long, and in many cases tough, as she embarked on a journey to beat the odds, becoming the first Australian athlete to medal at a summer and winter Games in Vancouver 2010, Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016, successfully representing the country in alpine skiing, athletics and most recently track cycling.
Today, Jess shares with you how she overcame some of her biggest challenges and what it takes to achieve true success. Over to you Jess.
I had always aspired to be a pro-athlete, but I had no idea of the road I would take and the challenges I would face to get there.
Like many children, when I was young I looked up to my mum. She played netball and basketball. I remember watching her games from a young age, and knew I wanted to follow in her footsteps. I was on the court as soon as I could be, and went through all of the junior pathways for netball and basketball, in the hope that one day I might represent Australia.
Life back then was pretty good. I’d say I had a fairly typical childhood growing up in Geelong, Victoria. My parents divorced when I was nine and my mum was a single parent. She worked really hard to give my younger brother and I opportunities. We didn’t have a lot of money but my mum would work the night shift as a nurse and come home in the morning to take us to school. She was always there to take us to sport, and then every night we’d have a sitter look after us so she could go back to work.
I just remember being in awe of her work ethic and dedication, and how she would encourage my brother and I to give everything a go. And because of that, I was involved in as much as possible, especially sport – I just loved being outside and giving my best at whatever I was doing.
But in Year 12 I started to realise that something wasn’t quite right. I was experiencing a lot of migraines and became extremely sensitive to light. It was so painful that I would race home after school, run to my room and immerse myself in darkness under my bed covers because my head was just throbbing.
On top of that I was starting to realise that my vision wasn’t up to scratch. I had always had glasses throughout my childhood so I didn’t really think anything of it. In fact I kept telling myself that the teacher was using a bad colour marker on the whiteboard, or that it was just poor lighting when I was trying to read the notes in my music class.
However, my condition was getting worse and not knowing what was wrong was the most frustrating part. The pain was so persistent that my mum took me to the doctors to investigate things further.
The doctor performed a simple colour blindness test. He basically showed me a little book which had circles with numbers in them in different colours. I was terrible at it! I couldn’t pick out any of the colours, so from there I was sent to an eye specialist and ended up having a whole bunch of tests done – ultimately I was diagnosed with an eye disease called cone dystrophy and was classified as legally blind.
Coming to terms with the diagnosis was hard, especially because I thought it would surely be the end of my dream of becoming a professional athlete. I was told that the disease was degenerative and that there was a real potential I would lose even more of my eyesight. I was also told that not much was known about the disease or the rate it would progress at. I had to try and figure out what life would look like as someone who was legally blind.
There would be no more sport, no more music, and at that point I had decided to go to university to become an osteopath and didn’t even know if I’d be able to do that. All of the things that had made me such a happy, vibrant person had gone.
The specialist referred me on to Vision Australia and they were a huge support. I was in Year 12 so reading and writing was a big challenge, but they were able to empower me with education, knowledge and resources. And it was the small things that made such a difference – for example they gave me a lamp with a specific globe in it which helped to reduce eye strain and headaches. They helped me adapt my life and make things easier, and were instrumental in giving me the tools to navigate my low vision.
If you were to have an eye disease, you would want the kind I have because I still have my peripheral vision which means I can thankfully walk around independently, but my condition does affect my central vision. So if someone is walking towards me, I can use my peripheral vision to pick up the shape, or see a car drive past but ultimately the object is basically a blur until it’s very close up. So I don’t know if you’re male or female, I can make out the car but I can’t see inside it or what the number plate is. All of the fine details are missing for me.
I knew that if I was to be successful I had to adapt. I remember thinking, “Ok this is the situation. I can’t change it. There’s no cure, there’s nothing I can do so I have to just deal with it”. I’ve always been very much about what I can do, opposed to thinking my whole life is over because I’ve lost over 90% of my vision.
I continued to play netball until it just got too difficult. And then I focused on my study to become an osteopath.
At the time one of my friends was heading overseas to work on the ski slopes in Colorado and asked if I wanted to go. It was the adventure I had been looking for! I had been looking for a chance to challenge myself and push myself out of my comfort zone.
The mountains, snow and clean, fresh air invigorated me. I spent three months over there working at a restaurant, learning how to snowboard and trying to disguise my low vision. I remember telling my boss I had left my glasses in Australia.
Despite not properly accepting my condition, I came back to home with a new lease on life.
I don’t really remember how I found out about Paralympic sport but when I did it instantly sparked my interest. I followed the urge and googled the Australian Paralympic Committee and phoned them up to ask if there were any sports for a person with a vision impairment – they said yes! So I caught the train to Melbourne to meet the talent manager and because of my sporting background, found that they were quite quickly interested in me.
I told them that at school I’d been good at long jump and athletics, and the process began there.
I went to a long jump coach, I went to a running coach and I went to a throwing coach and I did the B-qualifiers for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. I partially deferred my study and started training full time and was selected for the Australian team.
I was just living the dream! I was a full time athlete, wearing green and gold. I was just on cloud nine and couldn’t wait to get to Beijing – I was pumped.
Little did I know, my dream was once again about to diminish. In Beijing I was required to have an eye classification test and to my disbelief I was told that one eye was eligible but the other was point zero one of a degree too sighted. I was banned from competing.
I was heart-broken. I burst into tears. In trying to console me, the specialist who was conducting the test told me that my eyesight would get worse in the next six months so I would eventually be eligible to compete. I just bawled my eyes out. I wasn’t sure if that was supposed to make me feel better. At that stage I had 10% central vision, the last thing you want to know is that it’s going to get worse.
It was complete devastation. I spent three days crying in bed. My dream had been ripped away from me. Now that I look back, even though it was incredibly challenging I learnt so much about myself, because going into it I thought there was no way I could be any more motivated. But when I went along to the games that I was supposed to compete in (even though I cried the entire time thinking that could be me winning the medal) I left Beijing more motivated than I ever thought possible.
In September 2007 I had also been talent identified for the sport of alpine skiing. At the time I ended up talking to the Alpine skiing coach, and as it turned out, the Australian Paralympic team was based at the ski resort I used to work at. I knew the training ground so well! Would I be ready for Vancouver in 2010 in just 18 months?
So my focus shifted from Beijing to Vancouver and I started skiing. I trained hard and when the time came around to go to the games I’d lost enough vision to pass the test, and found myself on the slopes of Vancouver.
I had unfinished business to do. I finally had a chance to make my mark. I was a girl from Geelong, Australia. Everyone would say, “You are from a summer country and you ski?” I would always laugh and say “Yep,” also thinking back to how a couple of years ago I didn’t even know what ski racing was, and I’d found myself as an elite ski racer representing Australia.
The race happened to be on my birthday, after extreme weather resulted in a last minute schedule change and I won a bronze medal. To this day it’s my greatest career highlight, it was magic.
I became the first Australian woman in Paralympic history to win a winter Paralympic medal. Exactly 50 years after Australia won its first male Paralympic medal.
Since then I’ve gone on to compete and win various medals and at the moment I’m gearing up for next year’s Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
But since facing my first real challenge of losing the majority of my sight at 17, I’ve had to develop a strong sense of resilience because of the unique difficulties I face as a pro-athlete with low-vision.
It’s pretty extreme compared to most other sports. I have to rely on a guide in the ski fields and a pilot on the velodrome.
In skiing I’m racing at 100 kilometres per hour and need a guide to ski 5-7 metres in front of me. We wear head sets with earpieces inside our helmet with a little microphone in front of our mouth so that we can communicate with each other. He acts as my eyes as we fly down the mountain at full speed.
The risk is huge so there has to be a lot of trust. It’s an incredible relationship so finding the right person is so important, and then developing a connection where trust and communication becomes sub conscious on a level where he can give me an instruction and my body can automatically move. Because I’m well aware that I’m legally blind skiing down a mountain and I’m relying on someone else to be my eyes. What could possibly go wrong?
In order to succeed I’ve had to understand, and appreciate and embrace fear. I’ve had to surrender control which means my destiny and my ability to win a medal is in someone else’s hands as much as my own, and that’s not a situation most athletes have to overcome in their pursuit of excellence.
That’s why a lot of what I talk on in my motivational speeches is about those qualities that are sometimes seen as soft – so trust, and respect and communication, and relationships, these are things that if I don’t do correctly, I won’t even get out of the start gate.
And it’s relevant in many parts of life. I have to put so much trust in the world. For me to cross a road safely I have to trust that the footpath is where it should be, that the road is where it should be, and when I hear the little button go to indicate that there’s a green man, I have to trust that there’s not going to be a car running a red light. I’m forced to trust the environment.
In order for me to be successful I have to maintain really strong relationships. My guide is a 55-year-old man who is a CEO of a company. He’s been a high ranking official in the military, and on the other hand my track cycling pilot when we first started working together was a 21-year-old female who had just left home for the first time. They are completely different people but in order for me to be successful I have to build trust-based relationships which means strong communication skills and having a high level of respect for one another.
These are the values that make us successful in the long run.
And aside from that, in my experience, true success comes from hard work. I am where I am because I worked my ass off. Every day I’m faced with challenges and every day I adapt to my environment. I’m placed in a lot of situations where I don’t have control of my variables.
There’s always going to be challenges, that’s life.
I often ask myself, “Why do you do this? You’ve got other career paths and other things that you’re very passionate about,” but the reason is, I still love what I do. I love pushing myself and seeing what I’m capable of.
So despite all of the difficulties along the way, I deeply encourage anyone with a dream to just take the leap. Courage is a really amazing thing. But you need to find your why. Why do you want to do this? And then understand what’s holding you back.
I always found that when I was skiing, the moment I started accepting and appreciating the fear that I was experiencing, I was able to normalise it, and it became part of my role as a racer. Once I acknowledged fear was present I was able to look past it and it became a process opposed to an obstacle or an emotion. So for me courage is probably that first step of going, “You know what, this is what I want to do, so I’m going to go after it and give it everything I’ve got”.