Wikinews interviews Australian Paralympic skiers Jessica Gallagher and Eric Bickerton
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Sunday, Wikinews sat down with Australian blind Paralympic skier Jessica Gallagher and her guide Eric Bickerton who are participating in a national team training camp in Vail, Colorado.
((Wikinews)) This is Jessica Gallagher. She’s competing at the IPC NorAm cup this coming week.
- Jessica Gallagher: I’m not competing at Copper Mountain.
((WN)) You’re not competing?
- Jessica Gallagher: No.
((WN)) You’re just here?
- Jessica Gallagher: We’re in training. I’ve got a race at Winner Park, but we aren’t racing at Copper.
((WN)) So. Your guide is Eric Bickerton, and he did win a medal in women’s downhill blind skiing.
- Jessica Gallagher: Yes!
((WN)) Despite the fact that he is neither a woman nor blind.
- Jessica Gallagher: No, he loves telling people that he was the first Australian female Paralympic woman to win a medal. One of the ironies.
((WN)) The IPC’s website doesn’t list guides on their medal things. Are they doing that because they don’t want — you realise this is not all about you per se — Is it because they are trying to keep off the able bodied people to make the Paralympics seem more pure for people with disabilities?
- Jessica Gallagher: Look, I don’t know but I completely disagree if they don’t have the guides up there. Because it’s pretty plain and simple: I wouldn’t be skiing if it wasn’t with him. Being legally blind you do have limitations and that’s just reality. We’re certainly able to overcome most of them. And when it comes to skiing on a mountain the reason I’m able to overcome having 8 per cent vision is that I have a guide. So I think it’s pretty poor if they don’t have the information up there because he does as much work as I do. He’s an athlete as much as I am. If he crashes we’re both out. He’s drug tested. He’s as important as I am on a race course. So I would strongly hope that they would put it up there. Here’s Eric!
- Eric Bickerton: Pleased to met you.
((WN)) We’ve been having a great debate about whether or not you’ve won a medal in women’s blind downhill skiing.
- Eric Bickerton: Yes, I won it. I’ve got it.
((WN)) I found a picture of you on the ABC web site. Both of you were there, holding your medals up. The IPC’s web site doesn’t credit you.
- Jessica Gallagher: I’m surprised by that.
- Eric Bickerton: That’s unusual, yeah.
((WN)) One of the things that was mentioned earlier, most delightful about you guys is you were racing and “we were halfway down the course and we lost communication!” How does a blind skier deal with…
- Jessica Gallagher: Funny now. Was bloody scary.
((WN)) What race was that?
- Jessica Gallagher: It was the Giant Slalom in Vancouver at the Paralympics. Actually, we were talking about this before. It’s one of the unique aspects of wearing headsets and being able to communicate. All the time while we were on the mountain earlier today, Eric had a stack and all he could hear as he was tumbling down was me laughing.
- Eric Bickerton: Yes… I wasn’t feeling the love.
- Jessica Gallagher: But um… what was the question please?
((WN)) I couldn’t imagine anything scarier than charging down the mountain at high speed and losing that communications link.
- Jessica Gallagher: The difficulty was in the Giant Slalom, it was raining, and being used to ski racing, I had never experienced skiing in the rain, and as soon as I came out of the start hut I lost all my sight, which is something that I had never experienced before. Only having 8 per cent you treasure it and to lose all of it was a huge shock. And then when I couldn’t hear Eric talking I realised that our headsets had malfunctioned because they’d actually got rain into them. Which normally wouldn’t happen in the mountains because it would be snow. So it was the scariest moment of my life. Going down it was about getting to the bottom in one piece, not racing to win a medal, which was pretty difficult I guess or frustrating, given that it was the Paralympics.
((WN)) I asked the standing guys upstairs: who is the craziest amongst all you skiers: the ones who can’t see, the ones on the mono skis, or the one-legged or no-armed guys. Who is the craziest one on the slopes?
- Jessica Gallagher: I think the completely blind. If I was completely blind I wouldn’t ski. Some of the sit skiers are pretty crazy as well.
((WN)) You have full control over your skis though. You have both legs and both arms.
- Jessica Gallagher: True, but you’ve got absolutely no idea where you’re going. And you have to have complete reliance on a person. Trust that they are able to give you the right directions. That you are actually going in the right direction. It’s difficult with the sight that I have but I couldn’t imagine doing it with no sight at all.
((WN)) The two of you train together all the time?
- Eric Bickerton: Pretty well, yes.
- Jessica Gallagher: Yes, everything on snow basically is together. One of the difficult things I guess is we have to have that 100 per cent communication and trust between one another and a lot of the female skiers on the circuit, their guide is their husband. That’s kind of a trust relationship. Eric does say that at times it feels like we’re married, but…
- Eric Bickerton: I keep checking for my wallet.
- Jessica Gallagher: …it’s always about constantly trying to continue to build that relationship so that eventually I just… You put your life in his hands and whatever he says, you do, kind of thing.
((WN)) Of the two sport, winter sports and summer sports person, how do you find that balance between one sport and the other sport?
- Jessica Gallagher: It’s not easy. Yeah, it’s not easy at all. Yesterday was my first day on snow since March 16, 2010. And that was mainly because of the build up obviously for London and the times when I was going to ski I was injured. So, to not have skied for that long is obviously a huge disadvantage when all the girls have been racing the circuit since… and it’s vice versa with track and field. So I’ve got an amazing team at the Victorian Institute of Sport. I call them my little A Team of strength and mission coach, physio, osteopath, soft tissue therapist, sport psychologist, dietician. Basically everyone has expertise in the area and we come together and having meetings and plan four years ahead and say at the moment Sochi’s the goal, but Rio’s still in the back of the head, and knowing my body so well now that I’ve done both sports for five years means that I can know where they’ve made mistakes, and I know where things have gone really well, so we can plan ahead for that and prepare so that the things that did go wrong won’t happen again. To make sure that I get to each competition in peak tone.
((WN)) What things went wrong?
- Jessica Gallagher: Mainly injuries. So, that’s the most difficult thing with doing two sports. Track and field is an explosive power; long jump and javelin are over four to six seconds of maximum effort. Ski racing, you are on a course, for a minute to a minute and a half, so it’s a speed endurance event. And the two couldn’t be further apart in terms of the capabilities and the capacities that you need as an athlete. So one of the big things I guess, after the Vancouver campaign, being in ski boots for so long, I had lost a lot of muscle from my calves so they weren’t actually firing properly, and when you’re trying to run and jump and you don’t have half of your leg working properly it makes it pretty difficult to jump a good distance. Those kind of things. So I’m skiing now but when I’m in a gym doing recovery and rehab or prehab stuff, I’ve got calf raising, I’ve got hamstring exercises because I know they’re the weaker areas that if I’m not working on at the moment they’re two muscle groups that don’t get worked during ski. That I need to do the extra stuff on the side so that when I transition back to track and field I don’t have any soft tissue injuries like strains because of the fact that I know they’re weaker so…
((WN)) Do you prefer one over the other? Do you say “I’d really rather be out on the slopes than jogging and jumping the same…
- Jessica Gallagher: I get asked that a lot. I think I love them for different reasons and I hate them for different reasons so I think at the end of the day I would prefer ski racing mainly because of the lifestyle. I think ski racing is a lot harder than track and field to medal in but I love the fact that I get to come to amazing resorts and get to travel the world. But I think, at the end of the day I get the best of both worlds. By the time my body has had enough of cold weather and of traveling I get to go home and be in the summer and be on a track in such a stable environment, which is something that visually impaired people love because it’s familiar and you know what to expect. Whereas in this environment it’s not, every racecourse we use is completely different.
((WN)) I heard you were an average snowboarder. How disappointed were you when you when they said no to your classifications?
- Jessica Gallagher: Very disappointed! For Sochi you mean?
- Jessica Gallagher: Yeah. I mean we weren’t really expecting it. Mainly because they’ve brought in snowboard cross, and I couldn’t imagine four blind athletes and four guides going down the same course together at the same time. That would be a disaster waiting to happen. But I guess having been a snowboarder for… as soon as we found snowboarding had been put in, I rang Steve, the head coach, and said can we do snowboarding? When I rang Steve I said, don’t worry, I’ve already found out that Eric can snowboard. It would have been amazing to have been able to compete in both. Maybe next games.
((WN)) So you also snowboard?
- Eric Bickerton: Yes.
((WN)) So she does a lot of sports and you also do a crazy number of sports?
- Eric Bickerton: Uh, yeah?
((WN)) Summer sports as well as winter sports?
- Eric Bickerton: Me?
- Eric Bickerton: Through my sporting career. I’ve played rugby union, rugby league, soccer, early days, I played for the Australian Colts, overseas, rugby union. I spend most of my life sailing competitively and socially. Snow skiing. Yeah. Kite boarding and trying to surf again.
((WN)) That’s a lot of sports! Does Jessica need guides for all of them?
- Eric Bickerton: I’ve played sport all my life. I started with cricket. I’ve played competition squash. I raced for Australia in surfing sailing. Played rugby union.
((WN)) Most of us have played sport all our lives, but there’s a difference between playing sport and playing sport at a high level, and the higher level you go, the more specialized you tend to become. And here [we’re] looking at two exceptions to that.
- Eric Bickerton: I suppose that I can round that out by saying to you that I don’t think that I would ever reach the pinnacle. I’m not prepared to spend ten years dedicated to that one thing. And to get that last ten per cent or five percent of performance at that level. That’s what you’ve got to do. So I’ll play everything to a reasonable level, but to get to that really, really highest peak level you have to give up everything else.
((WN)) When you go to the pub, do your mates make fun of you for having a medal in women’s blind skiing?
- Eric Bickerton: No, not really.
- Jessica Gallagher: Usually they say “I love it!” and “This is pretty cool!”
- Eric Bickerton: We started at the Olympics. We went out into the crowd to meet Jess’ mum, and we had our medals. There were two of us and we were waiting for her mum to come back and in that two hour period there was at least a hundred and fifty people from all over the world who wore our medals and took photographs. My medal’s been all over Australia.
((WN)) Going to a completely different issue, blind sports have three classifications, that are medical, unlike everybody else, who’ve got functional ability [classifications]. You’ve got the only medical ones. Do you think the blind classifications are fair in terms of how they operate? Or should there be changes? And how that works in terms of the IPC?
- Jessica Gallagher: Yeah. I think the system they’ve got in place is good, in terms of having the three classes. You’ve got completely blind which are B1s, less than 5 percent, which are B2, and less than 10 percent is a B3. I think those systems work really well. I guess one of the difficult things with vision impairment is that there are so many diseases and conditions that everyone’s sight is completely different, and they have that problem with the other classes as well. But in terms of the class system itself I think having the three works really well. What do you think?
- Eric Bickerton: I think the classification system itself’s fine. It’s the one or two grey areas, people: are they there or are they there?
((WN)) That affected you in Beijing.
- Jessica Gallagher: Yeah. That was obviously really disappointing, but, ironic as well in that one of my eyes is point zero one of a percent too sighted, so one’s eligible, the other’s just outside their criteria, which left me unable to compete. Because my condition is degenerative. They knew that my sight would get worse. I guess I was in a fortunate position where once my sight deteriorated I was going to become eligible. There are some of the classes, if you don’t have a degenerate condition, that’s not possible. No one ever wants to lose their best sight, but that was one positive.
((WN)) On some national competitions they have a B4 class. Do you think those should be eligible? In terms of the international competition?
- Jessica Gallagher: Which sports have B4s?
((WN)) There’s a level down, it’s not used internationally, I think it’s only used for domestic competitions. I know the UK uses it.
- Jessica Gallagher: I think I… A particular one. For social reasons, that’s a great thing, but I think if it’s, yeah. I don’t know if I would… I think socially to get more Paralympic athletes involved in the sport if they’ve got a degenerative condition on that border then they should be allowed to compete but obviously… I don’t think they should be able to receive any medals at a national competition or anything like that. So I was, after Beijing, I was able to fore-run races. I was able to transition over to skiing even though at that stage I wasn’t eligible. So that was great for us. The IPC knew that my eyesight was going to get worse. So I was able to fore-run races. Which was a really good experience for us, when we did get to that level. So I think, with the lack of numbers in Paralympic sport, more that you should encourage athletes and give them those opportunities, it’s a great thing. But I guess it’s about the athletes realizing that you’re in it for the participation, and to grow as an athlete rather than to win medals. I don’t think the system should be changed. I think three classes is enough. Where the B3 line is compared with a B4 is legally blind. And I think that covers everything. I think that’s the stage where you have low enough vision to be considered a Paralympic sport as opposed to I guess an able bodied athlete. And that’s with all forms of like, with government pensions, with bus passes, all that sort of stuff, that the cut off line is legally blind, so I think that’s a good place to keep it.
((WN)) Veering away from this, I remember watching the Melbourne Cup stuff on television, and there you were, I think you were wearing some hat or something.
- Jessica Gallagher: Yeah, my friend’s a milliner. They were real flowers, real orchids.
((WN)) Are you basically a professional athlete who has enough money or sponsorship to do that sort of stuff? I was saying, there’s Jessica Gallagher! She was in London! That’s so cool!
- Jessica Gallagher: There are two organizations that I’m an ambassador for, and one of them is Vision Australia, who were a charity for the Melbourne Cup Carnival. So as part of my ambassador role I was at the races helping them raise money. And that involves media stuff, so that was the reason I was there. I didn’t get paid.
((WN)) But if you’re not getting paid to be a sponsor for all that is awesome in Australia, what do you do outside of skiing, and the long jump, and the javelin?
- Jessica Gallagher: I’m an osteopath. So I finished my masters’ degree in 2009. I was completing a bachelor’s and a masters. I was working for the Victorian Institute of Sport guiding program but with the commitment to London having so much travel I actually just put everything on hold in terms of my osteo career. There’s not really enough time. And then the ambassador role, I had a few commitments with that, and I did motivational speaking.
((WN)) That’s very cool. Eric, I’ve read that you work as a guide in back country skiing, and all sorts of crazy stuff like that. What do you do when you’re not leading Jessica Gallagher down a ski slope?
- Eric Bickerton: I’m the Chief Executive of Disabled Winter Sports Australia. So we look after all the disability winter sports, except for the Paralympics.
- Jessica Gallagher: Social, recreational…
((WN)) You like that? You find it fulfilling?
- Eric Bickerton: The skiing aspect’s good. I dunno about the corporate stuff. I could give that a miss. But I think it is quite fulfilling. Yeah, they’re a very good group of people there who enjoy themselves, both in disabilities and able bodied. We really need guides and support staff.
((WN)) Has it changed over the last few years?
- Eric Bickerton: For us?
((WN)) Being a guide in general? How things have changed or improved, have you been given more recognition?
- Eric Bickerton: No. I don’t see myself as an athlete. Legally we are the athlete. If I fail, she fails. We ski the exact same course. But there’s some idiosyncrasies associated with it. Because I’m a male guiding, I have to ski on male skis, which are different to female skis, which means my turn shape I have to control differently so it’s the same as her turn shape. It’s a little bit silly. Whereas if I was a female guiding, I’d be on exactly the same skis, and we’d be able to ski exactly the same all the way through. In that context I think the fact that Jess won the medal opened the eyes to the APC about visual impairment as a definite medal contending aspect. The biggest impediment to the whole process is how the Hell do you get a guide who’s (a) capable, (b) available and (c) able to fund himself. So we’re fortunate that the APC pushed for the recognition of myself as an athlete, and because we have the medal from the previous Olympics, we’re now tier one, so we get the government funding all way through. Without that two years before the last games, that cost me fifteen, sixteen months of my time, and $40,000 of cash to be the guide. So while I enjoyed it, and well I did, it is very very hard to say that a guide could make a career out of being a guide. There needs to be a little bit more consideration of that, a bit like the IPC saying no you’re not a medal winner. It’s quite a silly situation where it’s written into the rules that you are both the athlete and yet at the same time you’re not a medal winner. I think there’s evolution. It’s growing. It’s changing. It’s very, very difficult.
((WN)) Are you guys happy with the media coverage on the winter side? Do you think there’s a bias — obviously there is a bias towards the Summer Paralympics. Do the winter people get a fair shake?
- Eric Bickerton: I think it’s fair. It’s reasonable. And there’s certainly a lot more than what it used to be. Winter sports in general, just from an Australian perspective is something that’s not well covered. But I’d say the coverage from the last Paralympics, the Para Winter Olympics was great, as far as an evolution of the coverage goes.
((WN)) Nothing like winning a medal, though, to lift the profile of a sport.
- Jessica Gallagher: And I think that certainly helped after Vancouver. Not just Paralympics but able bodied with Lydia [Lassila] and Torah [Bright] winning, and then to have Eric and I win a medal, to finally have an Aussie female who has a winter Paralympic medal. I guess there can be misconceptions, I mean the winter team is so small in comparison to the summer team, they are always going to have a lot more coverage just purely based on numbers. There were 160 [Australian] athletes that were at London and not going to be many of us in Sochi. Sorry. Not even ten, actually.
- Eric Bickerton: There’s five athletes.
- Jessica Gallagher: There’s five at the moment, yeah. So a lot of the time I think with Paralympic sport, at the moment, APC are doing great things to get a lot of coverage for the team and that, but I think also individually, it’s growing. I’ve certainly noticed a lot more over the past two years but Eric and I are in a very unique situation. For me as well being both a summer and a winter Paralympian, there’s more interest I guess. I think with London it opened Australia and the word’s eyes to Paralympic sport, so the coverage from that hopefully will continue through Sochi and I’ll get a lot more people covered, but I know prior to Beijing and Vancouver, compared to my build up to London, in terms of media, it was worlds apart in terms of the amount of things I did and the profile pieces that were created. So that was great to see that people are actually starting to understand and see what it’s like.