Alpine Worlds 2019: Breaking downhill block

Gallagher conquers discipline that broke her spirit two years ago 04 Feb 2019
By Lena Smirnova | For World Para Alpine Skiing

“I’ve put so many people in my family through so much because I hurt myself and it was only me who wanted to come back and do these World Championships here. It’s not my best skiing. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’m just so happy that I finally completed a downhill after being so badly hurt."

A crash in downhill training a few days before the 2017 World Para Alpine Skiing Championships left Great Britain’s vision impaired skier Kelly Gallagher nursing a dislocated elbow, three fractured ribs and a hurt leg.

The injuries took a few months to heal. Gallagher’s mental state, however, has not been the same since that fateful day. The breakthrough finally came two years later at the 2019 Worlds where Gallagher daringly put her name forward for the event she was most fearful of.

“I stopped doing downhill after Tarvisio in 2017 when I had a really big injury,” said a tearful Gallagher after winning a silver medal in the downhill race in Sella Nevea, Italy. “I just had a mental block and I stopped enjoying skiing. I was just so frightened and I lived with all the fear. I felt that I’ve become a loser and that I couldn’t do anything.”

Mental block

With her injury constantly on her mind, Gallagher’s races over the past two years became more about survival than getting the fastest times.

“That’s possibly the worst skiing you could see in a downhill because we really weren’t racing it. It was just me trying to get from the top to the bottom safely,” she said.

“I was there physically and I was training, but I would look at the video and stuff and I’d be like, ‘Oh my, that’s not me skiing. That’s not me!’ But it was me.”

Gallagher did not have an easy start at the 2019 World Championships, missing out on the podium in the slalom and giant slalom, but the biggest challenge still lay ahead.

Down for downhill

It was a mental struggle for Gallagher to even enter the downhill race at the 2019 Worlds, and after she did, everything about the race seemed set on breaking her resolve.

The official downhill training was cancelled for three consecutive days due to bad weather, then right before the official training on 30 January, her guide Gary Smith crashed and broke his ski. The team physiotherapist taped him up as they rode the gondola back to the starting gates, but as Gallagher aptly put it, “he’s in a bit more pain than usual.”

As a final test, Gallagher received the news while she was already at the starting gate for the final that the athlete who started right before her, multi-Paralympic champion Henrieta Farkasova, pulled out midway through the race.

“Gary’s trying to keep me calm like ‘Nothing’s wrong, nothing’s wrong,’ but when there’s five or 10 minutes, I was a bit like ‘Oh my gosh’,” Gallagher recalled.

When the pair finally took off after the long delay, they finished the race 15.50 seconds behind gold medallists and British teammates Menna Fitzpatrick and Jennifer Kehoe.

“I’ve put so many people in my family through so much because I hurt myself and it was only me who wanted to come back and do these World Championships here,” she said. “It’s not my best skiing. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’m just so happy that I finally completed a downhill after being so badly hurt.

“It’s a small victory, but I think I’ll look back on it and it will be really special.”

Gary the guardian

Guide Gary Smith, who has been with Gallagher through all the aftermath of their training crash in Tarvisio, also savoured the long-awaited mental breakthrough and medal.

“She had so many ups and downs. She had some real great highs coming from Sochi and she’s battled through everything in the last couple of years,” Smith said. “I just tried to be nice and calm and level and just tell her she could do it. I always knew she could, but to get out of a downhill and out of the start gate and down to the finish, I’m really proud of her.”