Dr. Jessica Gallagher will soon take off to Rio to compete in the 2016 Paralympics from 7–18 September. A former Paralympic bronze medallist in alpine skiing, this time she is competing on the velodrome in cycling. Based on her record-breaking efforts at the world championships in Italy back in March, there is every chance that Jess, who is legally blind, will come home with yet more medals.
Jess Gallagher was just 17 when she received her diagnosis. It was 2003 and she was in her final year of school. Every afternoon, she would come home, close the blinds and hide under her blankets. “I was experiencing intense migraines, eye soreness and increasing glare sensitivity,” she said of that highly stressful time. “Over the years I’d seen a few optometrists and been given new prescription glasses but they’d never made a difference.”
Jess had yet another vision check and was tested for colour sensitivity before being referred on to an ophthalmologist for further testing. It was then that she received her diagnosis: she was legally blind, with peripheral vision but, less than 10 per cent of her central vision and little ability to see detail. Colour contrasts were a challenge. All due to a rare genetic diseases known as cone dystrophy.
“That diagnosis came as a real shock – I’d figured I’d need glasses but I hadn’t considered a rare genetic disease. I had no immediate family history – and until then I had been able to progress through life without my vision really bothering me. Whenever I felt the need to complain (about my sight) I could always counter it with an excuse – the teacher must be using a bad marker, light was coming in at bad angle; and so on.” It was Jess’s mum who took the diagnosis particularly badly.
“Mum took it a lot harder than I did – I suppose I was at an age when I didn’t really have a full understanding of what it all meant. But because I had a genetic disease, she blamed herself. We were told it was degenerative, that it was quite rare, and there was no cure, so there were a lot of unknowns. We didn’t know how bad my vision would become, how quickly it would deteriorate, or how it would affect my life. Mum was worried about how I’d be able to move on, how I’d be able to achieve everything I wanted to achieve from life.
Jess said as the years have progressed, her mother has become comfortable with the diagnosis, particularly as she’s witnessed her daughter’s accumulating achievements.
From her own perspective, Jess said she didn’t let the diagnosis hold her back. “I’m very optimistic – I’ve always thrived on challenges – so it didn’t really hit me too hard and I didn’t really expect it to have major implications.”
In fact, diagnosis came as somewhat of a relief. “Being given the reason for my headaches and eye soreness and colour contrast sensitivity, was probably the biggest thing for me – having an answer, knowing what was causing it, I just wanted to get on and deal with it, “ she said.
“I knew I had to re-evaluate things and the diagnosis helped me do that. Being in year 12, I had been trying to figure out my career path – I was looking towards law or osteopathy – and so I decided that osteopathy would be a great option because I’d be able to use my hands. Law required intense reading, which would have irritated my eyes.”
For any young person, year 12 is a challenging period. For Jess, completing high school was just the beginning.
“To do my course I needed to move to Melbourne to attend RMIT University so there were all these questions surrounding that – how would I go living independently, I couldn’t drive so how would I get around, how would I go attending practical classes?
An “incredibly supportive” family and accommodating health faculty eased the process with meals delivered and extra assistance made available during lectures when required.
Jess graduated with a Bachelor Applied Science (Complementary Medicine) in 2006 and a Masters of Osteopathy in 2009.
Social occasions, she says, have always been a personal challenge – not that this is revealed by Jess’ effervescent personality.
“I struggled socially when I was younger and I still do. Because I have peripheral vision but no central vision, when I walk into a room I can see outlines of people but I have no idea of their faces or what they’re wearing, so striking up a conversation with a stranger or finding friends in a room of people can be difficult.
“When people meet me it’s not obvious to them that I have a vision impairment which is good because there are no stereotypes assigned to me – people take me for who I am. However, probably the hardest thing that I had to get used to when I was first diagnosed was bringing my vision impairment up in conversation.”
Sport is My Life
Jess says her passion for sport, “an incredible thing that brings people together” has never diminished. “Growing up, all I wanted to be was just like my mum who played netball and basketball. I wanted to represent Australia and do my best – I love that I can challenge myself and push the boundaries of what I know and I still love that element of seeing how far I can go as an athlete – it’s taken me down a different path from the one I thought I was on as a 15-year-old.”
At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Paralympics, Jess became the first Australian female to win a medal at a Winter Paralympic Games, finishing third in the Women’s Slalom alongside guide Eric Bickerton. She won a silver medal in the long jump and a bronze medal in the javelin at the 2011 IPC Athletics World Championships in Christchurch, New Zealand; and in London in 2012, finished 5th and 6th in the Long Jump and Javelin respectively, despite suffering a knee injury six weeks prior. Jess achieved another bronze medal for alpine skiing at the 2014 Sochi Winter Paralympics in the Giant Slalom with guide Christian Geiger.
Jess was on track to compete in long jump at Rio until the event was dropped from the competition schedule in 2014. Having decided not to pursue alpine skiing after 2014 (she wanted avoid spending nine months of each year out of Australia for training), Jess turned her attention to cycling.
“I had always been interested in cycling, so after Sochi, I was looking around for an alternative event. As fate happens, Glenn Doney, the Victorian Institute of Sport Cycling coach saw me lifting weights at the gym and asked if I’d be interested in riding a tandem bike. My first time riding he paired me with Shane Kelly on the front as my pilot. I absolutely fell in love with cycling from the first ride. I was hooked – I loved the speed, the adrenalin rush.”
In 2016, Jess represented Australia at the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Paracycling Track World Championships in Italy, and with her new pilot Maddie, smashed the world record for sprint racing and most importantly, securing her spot in the 2016 paracycling team bound for Rio.
“The whole trip was my international debut as a cyclist, and there was a lot riding on it – I had to win a medal there to get to Rio – if not, it was game over, so it was all or nothing. Maddie and I only came together last August so when we crossed the finish line and realised we had won bronze in the one kilometre time trial, we were ecstatic. The next day was all about sprint matches and we weren’t so worried about that because it was not a Paralympic qualifier. However, both Maddie and I are power athletes and we love sprinting, so without even realising it, we broke the world record in our flying 200m sprint, averaging just over 65km/hour, and clocking 11.045s. That day was incredible, we won in sprint matches against Great Britain who had won the two past World Championships – so to do that and realise that we’d become world champions – is something that we will never forget. The whole experience was amazing and a big motivation to get to Rio.”
probably the hardest thing that I had to get used to when I was first diagnosed was bringing my vision impairment up in conversation
Landing back in Australia, Jess said it was straight back to work, juggling her private practice as an osteopath with 5am training sessions six days a week.
“It’s hard, it’s a challenge but everyone is time poor these days – we all have our challenges. Being a Paralympian we don’t get much financial support so I have to work (to pay my bills and allow myself the ability to compete as a Paralympian); that’s the primary reason I practise. Fortunately, I love my job and post-sport I believe it’s important to have life balance, so maintaining my osteopathic registration and maintaining best practice is really important.”
Jess is also popular on the speaking circuit regularly talking to corporate audiences about her experiences as a Paralympian cyclist and skier. She said the messages about teamwork, trust and mindset, which are so pertinent for her Paralympian success, are easily translated to the corporate sphere.
“As a cyclist and skier I work with an able-bodied partner whose performance underpins my ability to succeed so there are many great parallels that people in my audiences have never realised. I love speaking and I do it as much as I can. It’s a humbling experience to find that people take the time to sit and listen to my story – and if only one person takes one key message from each presentation and that helps to change their life, then that is an amazing thing.”
In 2010 Jess became an Ambassador for Vision Australia, an organisation she feels passionately about, having received so much assistance from them, especially when she was first diagnosed.
“There are a few organisations that are close to my heart and Vision Australia is one of them. Probably one of the hardest things when you’re first diagnosed is to work out how and where to find knowledge about accessibility – I was in a whole new world of low vision and I didn’t know anyone in the same situation. A visit to Vision Australia was recommended to me and they were incredibly helpful – giving me advice and knowledge – they showed me technology, and the things that might assist me in day to day life. Through Vision Australia I have met some amazing people. When I became involved in Paralympic sport, it was a natural progression to take on an ambassadorial role with Vision Australia – it enables me to meet with young kids to tell them about being a person with vision impairment – and to impart my knowledge, experience and learnings.”
Challenges and Lessons Learned
Jess says her greatest learning in life has been to gain an understanding of who she really is and what makes her happy.
“I pride myself on discipline and hard work so if I’m going to commit to a project I need to immerse myself in it and know that I’ll love it because I know that that’s how I’ll get my best results.
“Success is driven by achieving personal goals – for me, that comes down to sport.”
In her role as an Ambassador with Vision Australia, Jess is particularly keen to encourage young people with low vision to achieve their own goals.
“From my perspective and experience I think the most important thing is not to put limits on what a person diagnosed with low vision can or cannot do because that establishes a really negative mindset.
“Personally, if someone tells me I can’t do something, I’ll turn around and say watch me do it – but many kids I meet with low vision are too scared to try anything new.
They need to be given encouragement and courage, so I always say to them, don’t worry about your eyesight, just go out there and give it a try.”