In Paralympic slalom racing, you are flying nearly blind — with your teammate

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Let's meet two extraordinary athletes competing at the Paralympics in Sochi. Competing but they work as a team. Let me explain. Great Britain's Gallagher is a 28-year-old visually-impaired skier and Kelly, you won a gold medal in the super-G so congratulations for that.

Kelly Gallagher: Thank you very much. I'm so delighted to win.

Werman: You couldn't have done it without your guide skier, Charlotte Evans, and Charlotte is with us. Welcome to both of you, hi Charlotte.

Charlotte Evans: Hi.

Werman: So what did it take to beat the tough competition on the slopes?

Gallagher: It's really tough competition out here. There are really amazing athletes that we're competing against, but mostly you're competing against yourself. You're trying to improve every run and you're trying to put 100% of your effort in and to see what your results are at the bottom of the hill, you really need to train full time and Charlotte and I do that. We've been competing for four seasons and training and it's been very intense but we're just so delighted to have a reward at the end of our journey together.

Werman: How limited visually are you compared to the other skiers out there?

Gallagher: All I can really say about my visual impairment is I really don't see anything to do with the snow. All I see is Charlotte's fluorescent orange bib that she wears. We start off side by side, she says "Three, two, one, go," and then I chase her the whole way down the hill with bluetooth radio communications, so I don't really see anything but the orange bib.

Werman: How many feet in front of you is she approximately?

Gallagher: We're just about a ski length separated from each other and the closer I can get to Charlotte, the better my skiing can be and the faster we can go down the hill together.

Werman: Charlotte, what kind of instructions or advice are you giving when you're skiing so fast?

Evans: Basically my job is to feed back everything that's happening, making sure that I tell about the terrain change, about the combinations of the course, all that's going to happen underfoot, I have to relay that back before Kelly comes towards it.

Werman: It sounds like you both need really fast reaction times.

Evans: I have to look at least four gates ahead to make sure that I'm getting the right information quick enough to be relayed back. Basically, it's as soon as anything happens, so say that there's a roller coming, I'll say, "roller," and then stand up and give technical feedback of how her skiing is going, whether she has to stand on her outside foot, whether she has to drive her outside hand forward, anything like that I have to pass back quickly. If I turn around and I see her having difficulty, I'm able to assess and then tell her what she needs to do to get back into the course sufficiently.

Werman: A couple of days ago, Kelly, you did have a mishap. Can you describe what went wrong?

Gallagher: It was really unfortunate. Charlotte and I were communicating really well all the way down the course and I just kind of hit a gate with just the skip tip, and it meant that it knocked me out of my rhythm and I was out of the course and there's nothing really you can do. We're going out every day and we're trying to win the races and we were doing really well to that point and then we were out. It's just something that happens in slalom.

Werman: You medaled, as we said Kelly, but shouldn't the guides also be up there?

Evans: I was on the podium.

Werman: Oh, you were?

Gallagher: Yes, each athlete and guide receives a medal.

Evans: The guide gets just as much recognition for what they're doing. It's really nice to be rewarded as well as the athlete when you have to do the same as the athlete.

Werman: Kelly, you were a pretty late starter when it came to skiing. How did you first take it up? Is there snow in northern Ireland?

Gallagher: No, there isn't. Anybody from Great Britain or northern Ireland doesn't really have the opportunity to get on snow, it's not on your doorstep, but I guess it's just testament to the amount of effort and work that we've put in. We really make the effort that when we are out in Austria or France, that it's quality training right there, to make up for that disadvantage. Then we're at home, we use strength and conditioning physiotherapy to make sure that when we're at home we're still working on our same goal. I guess it's about taking opportunities and advantages wherever you can.

Werman: How did you meet Charlotte? How many guides did you have to audition before you found somebody you really worked well with?

Gallagher: I struck gold with Charlotte. In 2010, Charlotte had injured her ACL, part of her knee, and was recovering from that and doing some coaching. She took the opportunity to come and guide for me. Six weeks later, we were racing at World Championships even though we'd only ski'd about two weeks together. She was really thrown into the deep end and since then has made guiding her own, really taking it to a new professional level, so it's really great.

Werman: Charlotte, if you were going to advise visually-impaired individuals who are interesting in skiing, what would you tell them to do to pick up the sport?

Evans: Just get involved and try. I think if you're brave and you have guts, then you're perfect for this sport. To be a bit of an adrenaline junkie would also be good for this sport. It's such a nice sport to be a part of and everyone really cares about each other and looks after each other, especially in our category. We're all such great friends and I would just say just have a go and ask somebody. Like Kelly used to always tell me, she used to just want to try everything and that is how it should be. You should always just try to do the most you can and the best you can.

Werman: Aside from winning gold, what's been your favorite moment in Sochi?

Gallagher: Can I think about this? Let me think. I guess actually just even being at the start line. We've experienced so many races in so many places and it's all come down to these few races here in Sochi. Sometimes when you're in the start gate you put your poles over and you're like "it's here, there's no more training to be done, there's no more going to bed and dreaming about 'can I do this? Can I do that?" It's right there and Charlotte is standing right beside me and you look out and the race organizers are saying "10 seconds to go," and that's it, in the next 10 seconds you'll be on course competing for your medal. I think aside from actually winning the race, actually being in the race and competing has been my favorite bit so far. I've really enjoyed it and knowing that I've put in 100% and that I couldn't have done anything more to prepare myself has been a really satisfactory feeling.

Werman: What a great moment indeed. It gets real. One of Great Britain's skiers at the Paralympic Games, Kelly Gallagher and her guide, skier Charlotte Evans. Both gold medalists in the super-G, thank you.

Evans: Thank you.

Gallagher: Thanks very much.