October 31, 2012

Vision 2020 Australia Vietnam Trip

I've just returned from what will be one of the most meaningful trips of my life.
As Global Ambassador for Vision 2020 Australia's fight for avoidable blindness and vision loss I travelled over with Vision 2020 CEO Jennifer Gersbeck to experience first hand the work that is being done for this initiative on the global stage.
Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City it certainly was a shock to the system, the humidity and environment couldn't be more different than Melbourne and my inner travel bug certainly kicked in with excitement at being in a new country.

(Trying the local cuisine!)
  As a bit of background Vision 2020 Australia has 20 member organisations who are responsible for different areas of the Asia Pacific region and so with each new area we visited we were looked after by people from each of these organisations. With Jennifer having been to Vietnam before it was really just fantastic to have them showing us around and meeting the Vietnamese local's.  
Our first stop was Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province
which was a 3 hour drive (ferry ride included!) to this province where I met Dr Giap-  an incredible local ophthalmologist. He really is Vietnam's Fred Hollows performing over 1000 cataract surgeries a year! I 

We had an early morning start and headed out to a school to see how Dr Giap and his team screen children to pick up low vision and refractive error. This program is run by the Brien Holden Vision Institute and any child who they find with refractive error will receive free spectacles to correct their vision.

 (Ho Chi Minh City traffic)

(River crossing Vietnamese style)

Well what a day, the team were so efficient they screened over 500 students and all the teachers in one day. I floated around watching what they were up to and having some fun with the kids. It was clear they'd never seen a tall blonde before because the boys would try and sneak up to touch my hair and anytime I walked past a class room they would run to the window and jump and scream and wave until I came over to high five them all, it was great fun although I'm not sure the teachers would have been too happy given at one stage about 4 classes poured out in excitement! 

(Watching an eye screening... photo by the amazing Dean Saffron)   
It was on this day that I met Trang and her father Tuan, a heart breaking story with a beautiful ending. You can read about their story in this blog by Brien Holden Vision Institute. 

It gave me my favourite moment of the entire trip, being there to see the reaction of a father realising that we were giving his daughter the opportunity to have full sight. Brings tears to my eyes just thinking about that day.

Brien Holden Vision Institute-Vision 2020 Australia's Global Ambassador in Vietnam

Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province being a coastal province it was only natural after our day at the school to be taken to one of the local seafood restaurants on the water front. Being a seafood fan I was certainly in my element however I don't think I will ever be able to eat a whole King Prawn, head, tail and all, like they do! 

(World's biggest Oysters yum!)

The new morning rose and it was another early start, today we were heading to the new convention centre to celebrate World Sight Day. There were around 500 people present including many government officials. We were welcomed with some beautiful songs from children from the local blind school, when translated to me they sang 'even though I can not see I feel the world around me through my heart and even though I am blind I deserve to have a beautiful life'. It was truly beautiful. After the speeches Jennifer and i jumped on stage to help hand out what seemed like a million pairs of glasses to local school children who had been screened previosuly and diagnosed with refractive error.

We then headed back to Ho Chi Minh, an abrupt waking from my nap when our mini bus almost collided with a motor bike and large piece of concrete in the middle of the road, luckily our quick thinking driver had us U-turning through a minute gap to the other side of the road where luckily there were no on-coming cars or motor bikes! A short flight later and we were in Hue being greeted by the wonderful, hilarious Dr Phuc (Fred Hollows Foundation). 

The next day we visited the Provincal Hospital where Jennifer and I got to go into the theatre and see eye surgery up close and personal- one of the few times I was appreciative that my ability to see fine detail is hopeless! That day we also drove to another district eye hospital (in an old infectious disease hospital!) and eye clinic, along the way Dr Phuc gave us a history of the war as we were driving through the main area where fighting occured, he also recalled some funny Karoke stories and even started serending us throughout the journey- a man of many talents!

 (Heading in to watch a cataract surgery)

Once again it was back to the airport and on a flight to Hanoi, it was on this flight that I started to feel very unwell, Jen and I were both exhuasted but as we discovered shortly we both had food poisoning which was not fun at all!

The next day and despite feeling terrible we headed off to visit Hanoi hospital and one of my favourite parts of th trip to a school of around 1,200 children including 160 blind and vision impaired children. The teachers were inspirational, I was in awe at the work they have done to create a truly remarkable enivronment for the blind and vison impaired children. The teachers took us into a few different class rooms where I got to sit with and meet some of the blind and VI children. They read to me in Vietnamese, they spoke to me in English, the classes sang the ABC's in English and it was pure joy. It really hit home to me in particular seeing a young vision impaired girl reading to me because it reminded me so much of when I was little and would read with a book close to my face (which I still do now!) 

(Visiting a school for blind and vision impaired children)

Upon leaving the classroom I was cheered away with a 'good afternoon teacher!' and magnificaent smiles and waves. From here we moved to a performance room to be serenaded by the school's band of blind students. They played us traditional Vietnamese songs and they were incredible! The group of students are so talented that they have played throughout Europe and Japan! A group of young blind and vision impaired girls then sang in English and Vietnamese 'It's a small world'. The whole afternoon I was so moved and inspired by our experiances I completely forgot how sick I was until we returned to our hotel where Jen and I both promptly retired to our rooms where we stayed with fever's for the next 36 hours... yes that was not pleasant!

All in all the trip was life changing, it certainly made me appreciate being a person with low vision in Australia and in general just living in Australia, We have so much to be grateful for and every moment in Vietnam reminded me of this. It was a humbling and overwhelming emotional experience meeting the Vietnamese people and I have no doubt our shared goals of avoidable blindness and vision loss is well on its way to being achieved.
I'd like to thank Vision 2020 Australia for this amazing opportunity and to all the incredible people I met along the trip. Thank you for sharing your stories and experiences, this trip will leave memories that last a life time and I look forward to going back to Vietnam hopefully one day soon..I can truly see the powerful effect of what Vision 2020 Australia and their member organisations have achieved and what can be further done in this region in the future. 

And please remember sight is a true gift that we should all cherish.

(My favourite moment of the entire trip- seeing Trang put on her glasses to have her sight restored)

Here are a few links to blogs from our journey:

Vision 2020 Australia- Day Three Jess Gallagher's Vietnam Experiance http://www.vision2020australia.org.au/blog/2012-10-17/day-three-jess-gallaghers-vietnam-experience

Vision 2020 Australia- Jennifer's (Vision 2020 CEO) Vietnam highlights

London 2012

Well it's certainly taken me a while to write this blog and with one simple reason, since returning home I've wanted to re-focus, have surgery and move on from the disappointment of an injury plagued Paralympic's. 

After tearing the meniscus in my knee in training in the lead up to the games it was always going to be a difficult campaign but unfortunately my knee deterioated severely during the travel and left me on crutches for the month leading into the games, hardly an ideal preparation! 

London as expected was an incredible Paralympic's, a dazzling Opening Ceremony, sold out stadiums every session with the bellowing British noise and of course a star studded Closing featuring none other than Coldplay, Rihanna and Jay Z. 

 (Opening Ceremony showing off my Aussie fingernails!)

(ABC TV interview)

(Rihanna performing at the Closing Ceremony)

Competing in the athletics stadium was an experience like no other, the noise was mind blowing and atmosphere electric. I was proud to finish 5th in the Long Jump (just 10cm from a medal) and 6th in the Javelin, I did the best I could do under the difficult and frustrating circumstances.Despite my knee I loved every moment of being on the track in front of the crowds and noise.

  (On the warm up track with the Olympic Stadium in the background)

The stand out for me was during the Long Jump when a UK athlete came out for their medal ceremony. As is customary all events cease and to stand on the track and see 80,000 people stand up and belt out the British national anthem was mind blowing. I was in awe turning around and watching and soaking it all up!

The Londoner's certainly put on a show and it has been amazing to see the world really take in Paralympic sport. The Australian Paralympic team had a sensational games and finished 5th on the medal tally- even finishing higher placed than the USA, just an incredible result which I have certainly madfe known to my US friends :)

Whilst the games were great I was so excited to get home and have my knee fixed. We arrived home on a Thursday and I was straight into the gym on Monday to get some strength back before surgery. From the long time on crutches I had lost significant muscle bulk and only had a couple of days to work before I was to have my knee operated on. The operation was a great success and after 2 months of avoiding using my knee it was nice to have it like brand new and on the mend. 

My rehab is progressing well and everything is on track for my return to snow in Deember with the Australian team! After a frustrating few months it's safe to say Im very excited about the next few months and my return to the ski racing world! :)

August 19, 2012

Cardiff Paralympic staging camp

Well after a long flight to London we have arrived into Cardiff, Wales where the Australian Paralympic team are based for our staging camp. It's a fantastic setup with not just the athletics team but also swimming, cycling and table tennis here with more teams expected in the next few days. It's not often we get to see the other sports so it's nice to be able to mingle and meet new people from the other sports. It's my first time to Cardiff and it is a beautiful city and the people are super friendly. Our hotel is located across the road from the historic Cardiff Castle and I can't wait for my day off to go take a tour. There are so many stunning old buildings around and the weather has been perfect for training. Sunny and warm is a nice change from the 4C I was experiencing in Melbourne! Yesterday one of our incredible volunteers took me and a few others out for the 'local' tour of Cardiff. A beautiful city of 300'000 people we went to the church where Rol Dahl was born, the Cardiff bay & barrage, past the usual few castles, a magnificent Recital hall amongst others. One of the most exciting times of any Paralympic games is receiving your uniform and this year is no exception. Our team kit providers 2XU, RM Williams (ceremonial gear) and ASICS (shoes) have out done themselves.
Everyone absolutely loves everything and I can not wait to wear it once we get to London. Cudos to the APC to for being so well organized, in groups we turned up to a warehouse where we re-tried on our sizes, had any alterations made and left with a suitcase full of gear!
So life over in Wales is moving along nicely, perhaps the main issue with the group is the inability to find a decent coffee. Plenty of searching is being done by the staff but their optimism levels seem to be diminishing with every new attempt- in particular the Melbourne based staff who have already resigned to the fact we will all be drinking terrible coffee for the next month!

July 24, 2012

Life as a dual sport athlete

Preparing for a Paralympic Games every 2 years is no easy task. Quite simply there isn’t really anything in common between Alpine Skiing and Long Jump and Javelin.

There are 3 athletes in the world that competed at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Paralympics and will be competing very shortly at the London 2012 Summer Paralympics and I am one of them. The other 2 athletes are both American and I have the pleasure of racing with them on the alpine ski racing circuit, on the summer side and one competes in cycling the other wheelchair basketball.  I’m very proud to be a dual sport international but the bottom line is I’m going to London because I want Paralympic medals. No-one in Australia has ever medalled at a summer and winter games and that’s my goal. 

(My Vancouver and London team kit)

The process of transitioning from one sport to another is not simple. I could talk all day about the high detail, planning and scheduling that my team and I implement to allow my body to transform from a summer athlete into a winter one and vice versa. The process of transformation constantly evolves as we learn more about how I adapt, respond and progress in particular areas of my training. Naturally we also learn a lot from any mistakes that are made and we have certainly had those along the way.  

The biggest concern when transitioning is injury. In alpine skiing I fly down a mountain at high speeds in race courses lasting 1-1.5 minutes involving the need for high levels of speed endurance and in particular quad dominated movement patterns. In Long Jump and Javelin I use explosive power over a 4-6 second duration involving both upper and lower body strength in whole body movement patterns. Add in the fact I have half as much time as my competitors given I have a Paralympic Games or World Championships every year and you can see how planning is a crucial element to my ability to get back into one sport and reach peak potential in the short time frame available.

So I guess this begs the question with London almost here are preparations taking shape for the next winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia March 2014? Of course they are. My preparations for my return to ski racing have been in the pipeline for a long time now but not by me.

One of the great things about having so many incredible people supporting me is that all I have to worry about is one thing, training and training hard and right now that is all on London. Certainly my ski racing plans are put to me for my input but behind the scenes my coaches are putting together what I need to ensure I reach Sochi in medal contention.

Frequently I am asked which sport I prefer. Given the sports are worlds apart I love them both for different reasons and they annoy me for different reasons. A simple example being in ski racing I love the travel we do but it can also get tiring, in athletics we very rarely travel so I get to spend lots of time at home which I love but after awhile and all I want to do is be travelling again! In the end I think I get the best of both worlds. By the time I have spent 2 years predominantly in one sport the feet are getting pretty itchy to return to the other! And yes I can’t wait to get back on snow after London :)

(On my way to job number 1, life as an alpine skier. Aspen, Colorado)

(Flying through the air at long jump training, captured by the amazing Mari Erkje)

I LOVE that I get to attend and experience the summer AND winter Paralympic Games. Both offer the incredible atmosphere and comradeship that is the Paralympic movement and spirit. Yet with every games and its location offers incredible points of difference. A Summer Paralympic Games has thousands of athletes and team personnel whereas at the Winter Paralympic Games given there aren’t as many sports as in summer the village is a lot smaller and has the atmosphere of just one big extended family. The Australian team is no different in London there will be over 400 in Team Australia. At the Vancouver Winter Paralympic’s in 2010 Team Australia consisted of only 40, and there were only around 15 of us that were athletes, and only 2 of those (including me) were female! As a side note one of the things that I miss a lot when ski racing is just having a girly chat! Travelling with the boys is fun but after months on the road the stories become way too repetitive for my liking!  

(The Whistler athletes village, not expecting London to look like this... )

(The Australian 2010 Winter Paralympic team marching at the 
Opening Ceremony- we're only small!)

With London almost here the anticipation of experiencing a new athlete’s village, the dining hall, the games rooms, the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and of course the Olympic stadium where I will compete in front of 80,000+ people including family and friends means it’s a pretty exciting thought and without a doubt makes all the hard work and sacrifice of being able to transform my body from an Alpine Skier into a Track and Field athlete worth while. 

Now it’s just time to get those medals… 

July 22, 2012

40 days to go

When you hit the 40 days to go mark it becomes an interesting time in one’s preparation for a Paralympic Games. Training loads are still heavy yet the shift does begin to move into the pre-competition phase.  When you hit this point it starts to become exciting. I haven’t actually competed since the Victorian titles in March which means I’ve had 4 months of solid work in the gym and on the track for improvements and to finally get out on the run way  for a competition is great as I get to see how I have progressed.

At the moment I have started competing in some low key competitions as well as simulated competitions in the training environment whilst still completing around 12 training sessions a week comprising of things like long jump technique, sprint work and other running sessions, javelin technique and strength and conditioning.  Plenty of ice baths, osteopathy, physiotherapy, soft tissue work, dietician and sports psychology sessions thrown in and it’s easy to see how the days fly by.

With the increasing media coverage I have also had the pleasure of bringing my Vancouver Winter Paralympic medal out, reminiscing  all sorts of incredible memories and stories from the 2010 Winter Paralympics. The knowledge that on September 2 and 7 that opportunity once again presents itself for me to step onto the world stage to try and replicate those Vancouver results and experiences is spine chilling and it’s thoughts like these that get me pumped for London.

With every day that passes the excitement that is the Paralympic Games grows so stay tuned for things are stating to heat up!

(Winter training at Lakeside stadium)

 (Javelin training at Australian team camp, Brisbane)

May 13, 2012

Media fun

You know a Paralympic Games is starting to draw near when a whole bunch of media requests start piling in. After my nice little getaway it was straight back into it and that meant an 8.30am start with production company Broken Arrow. They are producing athlete profiles on a few of us to be played on the ABC in the lead up and throughout the games, however with a slightly more artistic and creative take than what has been done in the past.

It was a long day of shooting but it was a lot of fun, not only did they film me but also got an insight from my Mum and Long Jump coach Dr John Boas. It was 6pm by the time we finished and that didn’t even include footage of me actually training... that’s to be done in the coming weeks. I’m really excited to see the finished product, the guys are so passionate and some of the other work they have done is amazing!

(Filming with Broken Arrow)
After the filming was done there was no time to rest as I had been asked to have a chat with Luke Pentony for an ABC Grandstand radio interview on his program 'The Bell Lap'. A lovely guy and we chatted all things athletics and on some of the finer details of how I manage competing in both alpine skiing and athletics. 

Here is the radio interview: 

The article that came from our interview:
Gallagher looking for London redemption: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-04-27/gallagher-looking-for-london-redemption/3976956/?site=melbourne
(And a quick snap for the South 
Melbourne Market who sponsor the VIS)

A few days later and I was off to Sydney to help launch the Australian Paralympic Team uniform for London. One of my sponsors 2XU also happens to be the outfitter for the Australian Paralympic team so it was great to check out all the gear we will be wearing!

The event was held at Mercedes Benz Australian Fashion week which meant we also got to test out our skills at modelling! What a fun event it was, we had a great media turn out and it was pretty obvious everyone LOVED the uniform. RM Williams are making our ceremonial gear and they have done a great job. RM Williams also created our ceremonial look for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Paralympics so I have had the pleasure of wearing their clothing before and just like in Vancouver I do think we will look the best. 
For our 2XU casual and competition attire well I am biased because I love wearing 2XU but not only are the clothes incredibly comfortable they’ve also managed to choose green and yellow shades that look good! After the show we got to show off our uniform for the cameras and do a bunch of quick interviews for the various TV networks in the room.

Intertwined with catwalk rehearsals, shows and training was also MORE interviews. First up more footage for the Australian Paralympic Committee and then a whole lot of posing and ‘focused staring’ for the ABC team who were getting some shots for the opening credits of the games coverage. So in the end it was a big day but a lot of fun! It’s days like these which really get you excited for London because it really brings to the fore front that this is all happening... and that it’s not really that far away! 

And of course in amongst all the media has been training and as per usual lots of it! We are almost at the 100 day to go mark for the Paralympic's so it's head down bum up and cranking out some hard yards as the days tick over! :)
(Interview time in Sydney) 

(At the uniform launch rehearsal & look 
who popped up on the big screen in the opening piece!) 
 (Lights, camera, action!)
(The Australian Paralympic Team uniform for London 2012)

April 27, 2012

The perfect getaway

Well it’s safe to say I’ve had a fantastic week so far! With a week off training I took the opportunity to head up to Port Douglas with a friend and have a few days relaxing and enjoying some warm weather and boy did we time it nicely! 30C every day whilst Melbourne dished out 15C and rain and it made our trip just that little bit nicer knowing we were missing the bad stuff!

Our days encompassed swimming at Four Mile Beach, lounging by the pool, meandering the Sunday markets, eating fresh seafood and just a whole lot of relaxing and soaking up the stunning weather.

A couple of definite highlights for me was heading to Silky Oaks which is an eco lodge amongst the Daintree Rainforest. A 2 course dinner prepared by a french Michellan rated chef in the open air resturant, just metres away from the Daintree canopy. A stunning meal followed by grabbing a torch and heading down to the rivers edge for some more relaxing on some couches just metre's from the waters edge. So peaceful. It doesn't get much better than that.

Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef is an obvious highlight, we went to 3 different dive sites and they were all spectacular, it's just incredible to see the beauty of nature at work. With an underwater camera in hand we took some incredible photos of the coral and fish and attempted to get some nice photos of us with the coral and fishies!

Another highlight was our 4WD safari out to Cassaray waterfalls. Into the water we went, swum across to the cascading water, climbed the rocks and jumped back in over the falls. So much fun and being pure Daintree rain water it was silky smooth for our skin!   

Overall just an amazing trip, so chilled and peaceful but with some fun in there as well!

Here are a few of my happy snaps!

(Me in tropical paradise)

(Loved waking up to this view each morning)

 (Relaxing on the way out to the Great Barrier Reef)

 (Snorkeling on the reef)

April 19, 2012

Busy times

Well once again it’s been a busy month! Lots of training and competitions along with a few fun social outings to give life a bit more balance!

I was fortunate enough to attend the Ironman Asia Pacific Championships which were held here in Melbourne. 2XU one of my sponsors held a rooftop party which looked directly over the finish line. It was incredible watching the athletes on the big screen and over the final few hundred metres as they came to the finish. I can not even begin to comprehend standing for 7 hours let alone keeping moving and racing throughout this length of time, truly incredible. One guy even did a cartwheel across the finish line!!! 2XU had also set up a huge wall of all they’re athletes and my friend and I had great fun searching for my photos on the wall!

 2XU's wall of athletes!

I also went out to help with an Australian Paralympic Committee Talent Search Day, these are run annually around Australia and play a huge part in helping to find Australia’s next generation of Paralympic stars. I met some amazing young kids and am so excited to see how they progress over the coming years, there was definitely a lot of talent! 

Channel Ten interview about the Talent Search

Along with the talent search I went out to a few schools in Geelong, where I grew up as part o the Victorian Institute of Sports ‘Sport in Schools’ program. I was joined by Glenn Singleton, a retired Olympic Kayaker ad we had a great time talking to both primary and secondary school children. South Geelong Primary School in particular really impressed me. The kids were so fascinated by my eye sight and asked some incredible and very intelligent questions in regards to how I live life with low vision and how I get down a ski race course with my sight. One of the things I love about school talks is that we can really show students what life is like being a Paralympian.

I also had a few busy days of training being accompianed by crews from Channel Ten’s ‘The Circle’ and 2XU. They filmed me throwing Jav, long jumping along with lots of interview time. The 2XU video will be released in the lead up to London and the feature on ‘The Circl’e aired Thursday April 12. It was a great piece about my role as Vision 2020’s Global Ambassador. It really gives a great insight to the sorts of experiences I will be having when I head over to the Asia Pacific later this year. 

You can check it out here by clicking on ‘Thurs 12 April Vision Australia Jessica Gallagher’ http://ten.com.au/the-circle-video.htm

 Behind the scenes during 'The Circle' interview

The Weekly Review also published an article about my London preperations!

Photo from 'The Weekly Review' shoot

I did manage to make it back to Geelong to spend some time with my family and friends over Easter but not before a quick stop off at the Good Friday Appeal for a quick interview and some time answering phone’s and taking pledges. It was so much fun wandering the call room chatting to all the wonderful volunteers and people who were ringing up to donate.

On the track and I managed LOTS of training, comps and then a minor setback being a niggly Hammy which resulted in me withdrawing from the Athletics Australia National Championships. Whilst not serious given London is our goal there was no point pushing it when we didn’t have to, disappointing not to compete especially given it’s my home track but I had a great time playing team Osteopath for my training squad and with 5 PB’s from 5 events on day one and a National champion and another bronze medal from my squad on the Sunday it was smiles all around!

Lastly a quick shout out to former Australian Athletics Paralympic coach turned Melbourne Tigers Asst Coach Rohan Short who I discovered reads this blog! Great to have you on board and still following the Paralympic Athletics team’s progress as we head into London!

Up next for me… a mini holiday in tropical paradise for a few days of relaxation before we start the final build up to London… ahhh it’s starting to get exciting!!!