Champion paraclimber and Team GB captain Sianagh Gallagher was born with just one arm – but that hasn’t stopped the York teenager reaching for the top. WATCHING Sianagh Gallagher ascend a climbing wall is a life-affirming experience.
Born with just one arm, this teenager from Acomb seems to defy the laws of physics as she propels herself upwards.
Gripping with her feet, she throws her right arm forward, grabbing the hold with her fingers. Relying on sheer stamina and her upper-body strength, she lifts each leg in turn, looking for the mini “ledges” protruding from the wall, on which to rest and rebalance.
When she was born, one winter 19 years ago, doctors didn’t give her much chance of survival. Arriving 10 weeks prematurely and weighing just 2lb 11oz, she had no left arm, collar bone nor shoulder blade. Her lungs had collapsed and she had a curved spine, twisted pelvis, dislocated knee and both her feet were facing the wrong way.
Doctors prepared her mum Jade for the worse. But baby Sianagh (pronounced Shanah) was a fighter. After several operations and gruelling rounds of physiotherapy to straighten her twisted body, Sianagh went on to reach all those childhood milestones: tying shoelaces, riding her bike, albeit with a lot more effort and taking extra time than her siblings and friends.
Crucially, she grew up believing anything they could do, she could do.
“I was quite an ill child but I did manage to recover quite quickly,” says Sianagh, who has three sisters and a younger brother. “As a toddler, I was always staying positive. My family were really supportive and never really got down about it. I was never treated any differently, we all had to do the same stuff, like the washing up!”
And so it was with this spirit that she first went “rock climbing” at the age of ten. Her primary school had arranged for pupils to undertake a six-week climbing course at Energise in Acomb.
Sianagh remembers it vividly. “After I climbed for the first time, I just loved it. I loved how unique it was. Something that everybody thought would be challenging, turned out OK.”
And better than OK. Sianagh discovered she had a talent for climbing. Aged 13, a teacher took her to her first competition for disabled people, and she never looked back. Two years later, she was selected for the Great Britain Paraclimbing team, becoming the first one-armed female climber to compete for her country.
Today she is the team’s captain and preparing for a round of international competitions that will lead to the World Championships in Paris in September. At her first world champs in Spain in 2014, she came third. This year, she wants a higher podium place. “I’d like to get gold but will see what I get. I am staying positive.”
Training takes up a huge amount of time. Besides practising on the wall, there are gym sessions to fit in on top of regular work-outs at home. Sianagh also trains in her bedroom, doing sit ups on her bedroom floor, and hanging from the doorframe to build up the strength in her fingers.
Most of her focus is on building upper-body strength and endurance so she can compete against the best in her field.
To win in her sport, the aim is to reach the highest point of the wall in the quickest time. She competes against people with a similar disability, although many of her competitors will be amputees who might have a stump that they can use to help them climb. With just one arm, Sianagh has had to develop her own method. She explains: “I put my body and my legs in different positions to able-bodied climbers. For example, a normal position is to pin yourself to the rock using your right arm and your right hip. I am sort of back-to-front in that I need to use my right arm with my left hip to balance me out, so I’ve developed my own technique.”
The highest she has reached is 22m (72ft or the equivalent of a seven-storey building) – and in competition, it is against the clock. “You have eight minutes to climb.”
While competitors might use their upper limbs to rest, Sianagh uses her feet. “I have to be more clever with my footwork. I’ve learned to sit on my heels and balance myself, that way you can take short, little, rests.”
Paraclimbing is yet to be classed as an Olympic sport, but is on the shortlist for the 2020 games. An announcement is due in August. Sianagh is hoping that it makes the grade and she gets to compete for her country at the highest level.
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