Jessica Gallagher: Life, Full of Miracles
Losing her sight at 17 was a huge setback for Jessica Gallagher (Bachelor of Applied Science, Complementary Medicine, 2006, Master of Osteopathy, 2009) – until she discovered an unexpected path to Paralympic glory. Here she tells what she learned about leadership along the way.
I was born with a rare degenerative eye disease called Best’s disease and I am legally blind. I’ve always had vision problems, but it wasn’t until Year 12 that I was diagnosed, after my sight had deteriorated more significantly.
I had been recently diagnosed with my vision loss, I didn’t know who I was as a person, but I knew that osteopathy was a profession I wanted to pursue at RMIT. It was a whole new world of trying to figure out how I was going to study an intense program with only 8 per cent vision.
The head of the Osteopathic program, Dr Ray Myers, took me under his wing. I am so grateful for the Disability Liaison Unit at RMIT and Dr Myers, they encouraged and supported me, and always ensured I had the help I needed while studying.
I found out about Paralympic sport in 2007, in the first year of my Master’s degree. As a child all I wanted to do was represent Australia, so I was shocked to discover that I could still compete despite being legally blind. I’d never been exposed to anyone with a disability before, so to discover the Paralympics and then be able to qualify for Beijing was a dream come true.
Sport doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter whether you’re able bodied or you’re disabled, we all want to win just as badly and we put in just as much effort, regardless of whether it’s a Paralympic Games or an Olympic Games. I completed the research project component of my Master’s at RMIT while training for the Beijing Paralympics in 2008, which was an amazing stage of my career. I was living the life I’d always wanted to as a full-time athlete, competing in long jump, shot put and discus.
Unfortunately the day before the opening ceremony I had some eye classification tests done, and one of my eyes was eligible and the other was 0.01 degrees too-sighted. It was heartbreaking, I was a 21-year-old girl who’d been banned from competing.
"People tell me they feel bad for my eyesight, but I am grateful for the sight I do have. Seeing life through my eyes means seeing the beauty in everything and that doesn't mean I need eyesight to see it."
The specialists in China consoled me in the testing centre and told me that my eyesight was going to get worse in six months. It was a bizarre experience because I was devastated that I wasn’t going to compete, and I was devastated because I was going to lose more of my eyesight, but I was supposed to be happy about that. It was very challenging and ironic. I would miss out on all of these things as an athlete, but I would eventually get them, because I was going to lose my eyesight.
Once the Beijing Paralympics were over, I finished my clinical placements and exams. I was lucky I had lecturers who were understanding when they had to go over things with me outside of class, to make sure I was relating to the anatomy and osteopathic techniques.
The best moment in my career was winning my first Paralympic medal at the Vancouver Winter Games in 2010. I had started my Paralympic career as a track and field athlete and was brought into ski racing as a talent transfer athlete. By the time I got to Vancouver I’d only had about 150 days on skis. No one expected the summer girl who’d never skied before to do very well, but was a culmination of all of the elements I pride myself on as an athlete.
As I only have 8 per cent vision, I ski with a guide who acts as my eyesight. When I’m skiing I don’t see the ground, I can’t see the condition changes, or the gates I’m skiing around. My guide and I wear headsets inside our helmets so we can communicate. Through my headset, my guide gives me directions as well as technical feedback, so whether I need to push it, or whether I need to be on the outside edge of a ski more. My guide also wears an orange high visibility vest, as fluorescent orange is a colour I see quite well.
I had the determination and the will power to get down that hill as fast as I could. Crossing the finishing line knowing that I had won the first female Winter Paralympic medal for Australia was overwhelming and exciting. Standing up there on the podium on my 24th birthday with my guide who taught me to ski, Eric Bickerton, knowing that I’d done my country proud, was an amazing moment that I want to experience over and over again.
There are always challenges in professional sport. The biggest for me so far was the 2014 Sochi Paralympic campaign. The conditions were treacherous and there was very little snow, so if you made it down the bottom of the course on your two feet you were pretty happy.
There were a lot of people crashing and suffering heavy concussions and broken bones. One of our teammates passed away in a snowboarding accident. It was a challenging campaign because it took away the core element of why you do sport, which is for fun. So it was rewarding to come back and have won a bronze medal knowing that I’d been able to do it despite a lot of the heartache.
For me, leadership is utilising the skills that you have to help others and to help other people realise their own dreams. I try to lead by example through what I do, and one of the biggest things I've learned is that one person can have a significant impact on the things they believe in.
I don’t see myself as disabled, I’m much more able than a lot of people and I’ve never let my vision loss or the obstacles in my life change who I am as a person or what I want to achieve. I fell into motivational speaking through my journey. I enjoy giving people the courage and the confidence to know that it doesn’t matter if things go wrong or things change, it’s a matter of sidestepping it to find the pathway you want to get to.
My sight could deteriorate at any moment, which has given me a different perspective on life. There is no cure for my disease and nothing to aid the vision I do have and so I do not fear when I lose more sight because I know there is nothing I can do. Life isn't about waiting for something. Life is there to be taken with both hands.
People tell me they feel bad for my eyesight, but I am grateful for the sight I do have. Seeing life through my eyes means seeing the beauty in everything and that doesn't mean I need eye sight to see it. Albert Einstein once said, “You can either see life with no miracles or see life full of miracles,” and I see life as the latter. The only constant in life is change. I thrive on following a path I've never been down before to see what might be waiting for me.
This article first appeared online at: https://alumnimagazine.rmit.edu.au/archive/spring-2014/life-full-of-miracles/ and a reduced version in print in the RMIT Alumni Magazine, in the Leadership Issue.