The Sochi Winter Games seem like such a long time ago, don’t they? But this weekend’s Sports Personality of the Year should be a handy reminder: the shortlist has not one, not two but three Olympians and Paralympians from Sochi 2014.
Lizzy Yarnold won gold in the skeleton, but the other two snowy representatives are a little different. Two of a kind, if you like.
Kelly Gallagher is a visually impaired skier who, with her guide Charlotte Evans, won Paralympics GB’s first ever winter gold medal, in the Super-G ski event in Sochi.
They are the first double act to be up for Sports Personality since Torvill and Dean. Here, they each talk about what it takes to build a golden partnership.
Age 29, visually impaired skier (Kelly was born with oculocutaneous albinism, a form of albinism that affects her hair, skin and eyes)
When we first started skiing together, everyone thought Charlotte was my carer, just there to help me. That attitude has changed: Charlotte is an athlete in her own right. Not to sound like Liam Neeson in Taken, but Charlotte’s “very particular set of skills” makes her very suited to what we do. She can ski, she can look ahead, she can call back to me and instruct in real time. She’s better than a navigator in a rally car. We won that Paralympic gold in Sochi together. Charlotte wears a fluorescent orange bib, and I’d be totally lost without it. If she gets any further than a metre and a half away from me, I can’t see the bib. That’s the only thing I’m looking for on the slope. Sometimes she’ll get a bit warm and take it off, and I’ll be like, “I can’t see!”
The two of us are good together. She’s very calm, while I’m constantly working to catch up with her. In a strange way it’s the same as Torvill and Dean: one does the catching, the other the jumping. We each have our own roles.
It’s mentally intense for her, spending the day making sure I’m beside her. She’s been guiding me since she was 18, so she’s gone through a lot with me. It’s not like a friendship where you can take a wee break every now and again. It’s both personal and professional. From the outside it must seem like some kind of horrendous Stockholm Syndrome! We’re very different: I’m quite open, I love a good chat. Charlotte’s quite introverted until you get to know her. After a couple of crashes early on, we started working with a sports psychologist to help us communicate better.
Those working relationships Charlotte and I developed are vital. We’ve had to work together through tough things over the past four years. I’ve had quite a few serious injuries [including a torn knee and concussions], so we need to be able to trust each other on and off the slope. It’s so nice to share our success after winning gold in Sochi. I remember going with our mums to Wimbledon. We were outside taking a breather, and when we looked back in, we saw them chatting to David Beckham. Our mums chatting to anybody is scary, let alone him! Our sport is not really about personalities yet.
All of the questions I’m asked are about how it works, how I get down the slope. So to be shortlisted for Sports Personality is a real progression. To be named among athletes at the pinnacle of their sport is amazing for us personally, but it’s even more exciting for women’s sport, for winter sport and for Paralympic sport.
Age 23, guide to Kelly Gallagher
Kelly has my back in everything. That’s what winning gold was all about; we started as a team and ended as a team. I began working with Kelly in November 2010. I was 18, a competitive skier myself, but recovering from injury. When Kelly got in touch, I was worried whether I was good enough. I hadn’t worked with visually impaired skiers before; I didn’t even know there was a team. I said to my dad, “No, I’m too young. I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s too much responsibility.” He was like, “Why don’t you try?”
You’re putting two sportspeople together with completely different personalities, and you’re asking them to perform at the same rate. When you’re at different levels and at different stages in your learning, it can be difficult. I’ll always be impressed by Kelly and what she does. When I started working with her she was barely turning properly, now she’s skiing at 80mph. What we’ve done together is a massive achievement.
We are completely different; we both have positive and negative things that we bring to the team. If there was an issue, I wouldn’t naturally be open to discussing it straightaway. Kelly, on the other hand, is full-on, and always says what she thinks. At the beginning, of course, you’re not friends; it’s purely a working relationship. But you can’t do this sport and not become friends in the end. You’re with each other 24/7, you can’t help it.
I ski ahead and give her instructions. Those commands are unique to us, whether I’m telling her to initiate the turn, drive the arms forward or stand on the outside foot. I’ll also relay information about the conditions underfoot: whether it’s about to become icy or if there are rollers in the snow. The job is so difficult for me: I’m trying to get Kelly down as fast as possible, but also as safely as possible. Those two don’t normally work well together. Safety will always come first.
Only after that comes the speed. Yes, you want to win, but if you feel it’s unsafe it will be pointless. I can’t physically stop her from falling or having an injury; we’re not connected. I can only give her the best information. Injuries make you a person. It makes you decide how much you want the sport. It’s definitely not been handed to her on a plate, and I think that’s why we’re stronger in the sport, why we’re probably the only ones who haven’t retired from the old team.
We’ve had the worst crashes, and have gone through the most drastic things together. It separated us from the others: we know what we want.