This story is part of 30 Under 30.
Sianagh Gallagher is a para-climber who climbs and competes for Great Britain. She was born without her left arm and shoulder but never let that hold her back. When she tried climbing, aged 10, she loved it and she’s gone on to win many national and international competitions.
As part of 30 Under 30, Sianagh shares her story and talks about attitudes, her passion for climbing and being inspired. We are also posting more photos of Sianagh in action on Instagram: @scopecharity.
I’ve been climbing for about 9 years now. When I was 10 my primary school started a climbing club. I said no at first because I thought climbing would be a bit out of my league, but they forced me to go, and I loved it.
At first it was quite daunting because climbing is such a unique sport and being a little kid – I was scared! But the first climb I did I got to the top, which was a huge achievement for me personally. I did it regularly after that. The high school I went to is attached to the gym where I climb, so I could get in for free every day after school.
I’ve had to develop my own style of climbing
For non-disabled people the rule is always have three points of contact on the wall, so obviously that doesn’t apply to me! It’s been quite good developing my own unique style. It’s taken a couple of years to really perfect it. At first I didn’t have a clue about climbing, I didn’t know the rules and regulations or how to climb as a good climber, but over the years I’ve developed my own technique and really got into it.
I’ve also learnt from climbing with friends. Then I’d look at people like Shauna Coxsey, who’s the world’s best boulderer, and she’s a huge inspiration. I’d look at other professional climbers to see how they climbed and when you climb with friends, you always compete to be better than them. It gets really fun!
Negative attitudes just make me more determined
Once when I was in year 8 or 9, there were 6 of us climbing with an instructor. You’re only allowed 6 people at one time so when a seventh person came we were like “Sorry, it’s busy, you can’t come in now”. Then they turned to me and said “Well she’s not going to do anything. She’s only got one arm. She can’t climb.” That was kind of an eye opener for me because I thought “Well, actually I can and I’m going to prove you very wrong.” It made me more determined to carry on.
Some people can be quite negative and quite closed-minded but those people don’t come around often. And when they do you’ve kind of just got to feel sorry for them because if they’re going out of their way to put other people down, they’re living quite a sad life really.
Then there’s the subtle kind of people who don’t necessarily mean to be mean, but they just don’t think outside the box. They just assume that disabled people don’t really do much with their lives. Often people are like “Wow, I was so impressed, when I saw you walking here I didn’t think you’d be able to do it.” And I’m like “Oh, thanks.”
When you’re around someone with a negative attitude it makes you a bit depressed, but when you’re around someone with a positive attitude, you want to be more like them. You want to look at life with life with as little negativity as possible.
The first time I competed I came first
The first competition I ever went to was in 2010. It was the first competition for disabled people that was ever run in the UK. My teacher from secondary school took me and I came first, which was huge. I thought “Wow, I can really get serious about this.”
I’ve done so many competitions since then. As the years went on the competitions became more serious and we developed a team for Great Britain. You have to go to these British competitions and try out for the team. I was too young the first time I tried, then the second time I tried I made the team. I think that was one of my biggest ever achievements. It was so amazing. It means that now I’ve got the opportunity to go to international competitions. Two years ago, I did the World Championships and came third. That was incredible – the first World Championships I’d been to and I made the podium.
I’m good friends with all the international climbers and chat to them on Facebook. Even though they’re your competitors. Then you meet people who have the same disability as you and it’s a massive learning curve because they might be able to climb higher than you so you know where to set your own standards.
We’re waiting to find out if climbing will be in the Paralympics 2020
Paraclimbing isn’t a Paralympic sport yet but we find out in August if we’ve been accepted into the Paralympics 2020. For the public, I think it would be amazing for them to be able to watch climbing and for it to get a lot of publicity. It’s such a huge sport but the highest you can go is the World Championships. It would be great to give it a step up and allow athletes to really train for something huge and get recognised like the should be, for doing such an amazing sport.
I always watch the Paralympics when it’s on. It’s such a big thing for disabled people to prove themselves, even if they don’t feel they should have to. People do generally have low expectations of disabled people and don’t know what they’re capable of. So when they go out there and they’re as good as, or sometimes better than, non-disabled people, it’s really inspiring for everyone. I get really inspired by other disabled athletes. If I see other athletes that are just so motivated and upbeat about the sport it makes me want to try harder.
What I love about climbing
Climbing is so unique. When you go to a climbing wall there’s always something different try. There’s always different routes, there’s always harder stuff and there’s always area for improvement. You can never be at your best, you can always work on little things and improve to become the best you want to be.
I teach kids how to climb and I really enjoy doing that. I think it’s nice for them to have a disabled person teaching them. At first you kind of get the stare, and they don’t know whether to ask or not, and then they do and they’re like “Why are you born with one arm?” and I’m like “Why are you born with two?” and they go “Oh yeah” and then they leave it and just act normally.
In the future, if climbing gets into the Paralympics I’d like to compete in that. If not, I’d like to be first in the World Championships. I think that would be amazing.
Paving the way for others
There are only a few para-climbers with only one arm, especially people like me who don’t have shoulders. A lot of people have stumps with they can use when they’re climbing. There’s a guy who’s the same as me, but no female climbers yet.
It’s still crazy thinking that people might be inspired by me. I just climb because I love it. When people look at you as an inspiration you think “What have I really done to deserve it?” but it’s a good feeling.
Sianagh is sharing her story as part of our 30 Under 30 campaign. We’ll be releasing one story a day throughout June from disabled people under 30 who are doing extraordinary things. Keep up to date with all of our new stories on our 30 under 30 page.
If you want to find out more about Sianagh and keep up to date with her climbing adventures, visit her Facebook page.