She is the first British alpine skier ever to win a gold medal at either a Paralympic or Olympic Games, but what Kelly Gallagher really wants to do is to go home, put on her pyjamas and watch some television.
Before she can do that, there will be a string of media appearances, and a visit to Number Ten to meet the prime minister with the rest of the successful Sochi 2014 ParalmypicsGB team.
But when she spoke to Disability News Service (DNS), at a central London hotel this week, she and the team had only just arrived on their coach from Heathrow Airport, following a delayed flight from Russia. She was, she said, “exhausted”.
Gallagher is so single-minded, and devoted to the sport of ski-racing, that her whole life has been focused on the goal of winning races.
Even on holiday, she says, she is constantly thinking about how she can improve as a racer.
“I have a real passion for ski-racing,” she says. “It’s more than just sport to me, it’s become my whole life.
“With ski-racing, you have to keep on learning. You’re always improving and that is what is exciting about racing, and I guess life as well.”
Now, she says, she cannot wait to return to her home outside Belfast. “I’m so tired after four years of hard work that I am really looking forward to sitting in my pyjamas and watching some TV.”
She had surgery last May, and recovering from that to get herself fit and pain-free for racing through the season with her guide Charlotte Evans was mentally and physically draining. Now she needs to recover.
Gallagher returns from Sochi as a history-maker, but appeared unaware of the attention her gold medal in the super-G event for visually-impaired skiers was about to bring.
She says she is “delighted” to have something to show for all the weights she has lifted over the last four years in the gym at the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland, alongside Paralympic athletics stars such as Michael McKillop and Jason Smyth.
“I worked so hard there,” she says. “I’m delighted to have something to show for it.
“You see other athletes who have gone to the summer games and they’ve got their medals and done their performances [at London 2012] and I have to wait for two years.
“It will be nice to go back there, with all the support staff… and have a wee bit of a celebration.”
Gallagher almost quit the sport after a back injury and concussion, but was motivated to fight on after her father died two years ago.
She described earlier in the week, while still in Sochi, how the media coverage in the UK was a new experience, as no-one had previously shown any interest in her results.
“When we won two world championship medals when we first started ski racing together, you couldn’t tell a sponsor about it,” she said. “They were like, ‘All right, that’s very interesting.'”
But although things have changed, she tells DNS that she has not thought about what she might do with her new higher profile, other than to share the joy of the sport and the story of her “really tough” road to Paralympic glory.
“I think in sport you get behind people and you see they are going through hardship and sometimes there is success, sometimes they are on top of the world, and sometimes they are on the bottom, and that really transfers into everybody’s life,” she says.
“Some days you have the best day at work and some days you have the worst and you just want to get in your pyjamas and watch TV.”
Gallagher combines her single-minded focus on ski-racing with the fearlessness needed to win races in such a dangerous sport, particularly for someone with a visual impairment.
“You’re trying to go as fast as you can, but you’re trying to overcome whatever’s within you. Everyone has that self-preservation within them, that [feeling of]: ‘Can I do this?’
“That’s what wins races, people who put themselves out there and want to push themselves as fast as they possibly can and have the technical skills to be able to do that.”
But it wasn’t just Gallagher who performed in Sochi. The entire ParalympicsGB team were “exceptional”, according to their team manager.
Jade Etherington won four medals, the most by any British winter Paralympic athlete in a single games.
And the ParalympicsGB team also celebrated the first time that a female skip – Aileen Neilson – had led a ParalympicsGB team to a wheelchair curling medal.
UK Sport had set ParalympicsGB the target of winning between two and six medals. They won six, with four for Etherington, Gallagher’s gold, and a bronze for the wheelchair curlers.
It was the best-ever medal haul by a ParalympicsGB team at a winter games, and the highest-ever final position in the medals table (10th).
Penny Briscoe, ParalympicsGB’s chef de mission, said Sochi had been a chance for winter Paralympic sport “to come of age, to inspire disabled people to consider taking up adaptive ski-ing, wheelchair curling or the other winter sports and to obtain some of the profile that their summer sport counterparts achieved in London”.
She added: “I am so pleased to be able to say that, as a team, we have taken pretty much every opportunity over the course of the games and that the team has been exceptional both on and off the field of play.”
But there was success at home, too, with live broadcasts from Channel Four and widespread media coverage elsewhere, with more accredited journalists from the UK in Sochi than there were in Beijing for the 2008 summer games.
Tim Hollingsworth, chief executive of the British Paralympics Association, said Sochi had been a “phenomenal experience for all concerned with the British team, and indeed for the Paralympic movement”.
He added: “It has been a fantastic team effort and we couldn’t be prouder of the results. Part of this has been the great work of Channel 4, the BBC and the mainstream media in providing more coverage of a winter games than ever before.”
18 March 2014