Tandem dream team forged from adversity

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Ian Chadband / AAP News

 

The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games proved to be a golden chapter in the storied history of Jessica Gallagher.

It takes two to tandem – but it takes a duo of rare fortitude and resilience to have created Australia’s para-cycling dream team.

Blind Paralympian nonpareil Jess Gallagher and her sighted pilot Caitlin Ward reckon finding each other was pure serendipity after years of crushing setbacks that almost derailed both their careers.

Yet the pair’s toughnesss on a tandem turned them into the unbeaten stars of the Commonwealth Games track para-cycling, as they raced to dominant golds in both the tandem sprint and 1km time trial.

“There’s been a lot of times when I thought I’d never have days like these – and if I was to tell you them all, we’d be here for weeks,” said Ward, a 28-year-old Victorian who somehow managed to become the country’s top sprinter despite a six-year catalogue of woes.

“I’ve had a lot of bad luck with injuries, the worst being in 2016 when I was crushed by 250 kilos in a leg press in a gym accident – and it’s been years of turmoil ever since,” the Adelaide-based athlete told AAP.

Reflecting on that dreadful knee injury, as well as long fights with glandular fever and a broken ankle, she added: “But I guess what’s most important is that I got to be this person who never gives in.

“For 10 years, I’ve proved there’s absolutely no-one else can say ‘die’ to me, because I never say die – and I’m really proud of that.”

Things turned around last year when she linked up with Geelong’s amazing 36-year-old Gallagher, the only Australian to win Paralympic medals in both Winter and Summer Games and to have competed in the national team at four sports – skiing, cycling, athletics and rowing.

Diagnosed with a rare eye disease, cone dystrophy, at school, she thought her cycling days were done in 2019 when there were no pilots good enough to ride with her, and she also failed to make the Tokyo Paralympics rowing team.

But the chance to be paired with Ward changed everything. “It’s been a privilege to jump on the tandem with Katie because when we’re out there o n the attack, I know we’ve both done everything possible to be the best we can possibly be,” she said.

“I’ve been in Paralympic sport for 16 years and what people don’t realise is that most of my sports changes have been forced on me through circumstances out of my control,” explained Gallagher.

“I had to leave track and field because my event, the long jump in which I was world silver medallist, was removed from the Paralympics.

“That’s why I tried cycling. It’s what I’m proudest of – that I’ve been able to always be in control of my choices, finding and creating opportunities for myself down the years that have led to extraordinary places.

“If you’d have told me 10 months ago I’d be back on a tandem and winning two Commonwealth games golds, I’d never have believed it possible.”

Gallagher will next go for gold in the mixed coxed fours at the world para-rowing championships in the Czech Republic next month. “You just never know what’s round the corner,” beamed one half of the dream team.

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