Danelle Umstead has a great sense of humor.
A professional alpine ski racer, Danelle is headed to Sochi this winter. Qualifying in all five alpine events – downhill, Super G, Super Combined, Giant Slalom and Slalom -- she is favored to medal in the speed events.
But first, she’s explaining how to pronounce her name.
“It’s Dan-yell. I dropped the ‘I’ since I can’t see.” she laughs.
“Really?” I ask, causing more laughter.
“No,” she clarifies. “My parents spelled it without the ‘I’. I just like to hear how people react when I say that.”
You see, Danelle is blind. And she ski races. Here is her story.
Skiing Changes a Life
When she was 13, Danelle was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition that caused her vision to deteriorate.
We didn’t talk much about those years, when she was a teen and adapting to losing her sight. But Danelle shares that by 2000, she was in a really bad place.
She was forced to retire from her job, her sight was deteriorating even more and she’d lost her mother to cancer. Then her dad called and said “We’re going skiing and I’m going to guide you.”
Danelle had never skied before. Her dad had only tried skiing the year before. So together, they learned how to ski, and her father learned how to guide her.
“Skiing transformed my life,” shares Danelle. “It helped me go from one extreme to the other. It’s a wonderful healthy addiction.”
Skiing also transformed her father’s life. The family moved to New Mexico, to ski at Taos. Today, Danelle’s father is a ski instructor. And his daughter is a world-class athlete.
It’s a Team Effort
While all professional athletes have incredible support systems to help them perform at an optimum level, visually impaired racers have a ski racing guide who runs the course ahead of them, providing auditory feedback and directions via headsets.
Danelle’s partner is her husband Rob. A former collegiate racer and professional ski coach, they met in Taos in 2005. Within a year, they’d relocated to Park City, where Rob had a coaching job.
Living in Utah, Danelle started skiing with the National Ability Center at Park City Mountain Resort. She started ski racing and Rob became her guide. In 2007, the couple had a new baby boy, Brocton, and enough success to make ski racing their full-time jobs.
Together, Danelle and Rob won two bronze medals at the Vancouver Paralympic Games, one in downhill and one in Super Combined.
They have even higher hopes for Sochi.
“We’ve learned a lot over the years about working as a team. Our goal is to ski our very best as a team and if we get to the top of the podium, that is fantastic. We want to leave it all out there and do our best and be proud of what we’ve done.”
Trust and Communication
Trust is a big factor in Danelle and Rob’s relationship. Husband and wife, parents, and partners in a ski racing team, they must have good communication and inherent trust.
Danelle explains that for her, trust is a way of life. “I have to depend upon others to be my eyes and give me verbal clues.”
Ski racing takes this trust and communication to a higher level. “When we’re racing, I have to put my trust in Rob and know that he’ll give me the information I need to get down the hill as fast as I possibly can.”
In addition to Danelle and Rob, Team Umstead includes their son Brocton, now 6 years old, retired guide dog Bettylyn and their new guide dog, Aziza.
While the Umstead family calls Park City home, they spend their winters training in Winter Park, Colorado at the National Sports Center for the Disabled.
And while Brocton loves skiing he has yet to express much interest in ski racing himself. Still, he’s been raised going to races and traveling with mom and dad.
“He thinks were the best skiers in the world,” laughs Danelle. “He makes life so easy. While we’re working hard on the hill to improve our trust and communication, off the hill he makes us laugh and smile. He makes it all worth it.”
One More Challenge
Hearing Danelle speak about her family and racing, you can’t help but admire her strength and drive.
And then she adds one more thing to her story.
On an October morning in 2010, Danelle woke up immobile.
Paralyzed on her right side, doctors first thought it was a stroke. Then they discovered it was MS.
Danelle had to learn to walk again, before she could ski again.
But she didn’t give up. Intense physical therapy, steroid injections and incredible discipline had Danelle back on skis within one month. She says that it “wasn’t pretty,” but being back on skis proved to her how much she loves the sport.
“Life is a gift and living it is a choice. I want to live my life to the fullest. Anything that stands in my way will not tear me down.”
The 2014 Paralympic Games
A parallel event to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games will be held at the same venues and on the same courses at Sochi on March 7-16. In the US, NBC will televise 50 hours of events. All events will also be live streamed on TeamUSA.org.
Closer to home, the 39th Wells Fargo Ski Cup at Winter Park Resort takes place on February 21-23. A fundraiser for the National Sports Center for the Disabled, several athletes bound for Sochi will be competing. For more information about the racing and other festivities, please check here.
If you’re in New England, Shawnee Peak, Maine hosts their 12th annual “Break the Sound Barrier” race to benefit programs for hearing impaired children and adults on March 2. Former Olympian Julie Parisien is the pacesetter.
Check with your local resort for races, events and other fundraisers for adaptive sports in your area.
More on Team USA:
- Ten Minutes With Ted Ligety, October 16, 2013.
- Ten Minutes with Jamie Anderson, US Snowboard Slopestyle, November 8, 2013.
- Catching Up with Team USA’s Torin Yater-Wallace, February 10, 2014.
More on Adaptive Skiing:
- Skiing Again: An Adaptive Skier’s Return to the Slopes, December 23, 2013.
- The Benefits of Adaptive Skiing, April 10, 2012.
- Looking at Purgatory, Colorado Through Different Eyes, March 27, 2013.
- Noah’s Story: Skiing with Angelman’s Syndrome, May 17, 2011.
© 2014, Kristen Lummis. All rights reserved. Any use or publication of content, including photos, requires express permission.