WINTER PARK, Colo. — If you’ve watched U.S. Alpine skiers Julia Mancuso and Bode Miller in Sochi these Olympic Games, you know how fast and furious the sport of ski racing can be. Now imagine flying down those slopes at 60 miles per hour — with your eyes closed.
That’s kind of what it’s like for Danelle Umstead, who will be racing those same mountains in Sochi in March for the Paralympic Games.
Umstead and her husband, Rob, are members of the U.S. Paralympic Alpine Ski Team. They compete as a team in the visually impaired category. To give you an idea of how good they are, the Umsteads have qualified to race in all five Alpine events in Sochi — the downhill, the super G, the super combined, the slalom and giant slalom.
On the slopes, and in life, the Umsteads' success is based on trust.
“Trust is a huge word, mostly between Rob and I,” said Danelle Umstead. “I trust him to get me down the mountain as my eyes. He’s constantly telling me what is coming up under foot, what is going to happen, terrain changes. And, I’m doing it without sight and the trust of my husband.”
At age 13, doctors told Danelle that a degenerative eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa would eventually cause her to go blind. She no longer has central vision, and is beginning to lose her peripheral vision as well.
The diagnosis was devastating, but Danelle found comfort in her family, especially her mother.
“I had no worries because I had my mom by my side and she said she was going to do it all with me,” Danelle said. “She’d be my eyes and she’d be right there with me.”
But in 1999, Danelle lost her mother to cancer.
“When I lost her, I lost all hope and all will and even started losing even more vision,” Danelle said. “And, I spent a good two years feeling sorry for myself and wishing my mom was with me and wishing I had her to be by my side.”
In an effort to cheer her up, Danelle’s father decided to take her skiing. He told her he would act as her guide on the mountain — and the rest is history.
“I was hooked from that moment forward,” Danelle said. “Through sport I found a new life and new meaning to living without vision and living with hope.”
Today, Danelle can only see about four feet in front of her, and nothing is detailed. It’s easy for her to mistake a person for a tree, and she wouldn’t know if someone is a man or a woman unless they spoke.
“She almost kissed a teammate once because she thought it was me,” laughed Rob Umstead. Danelle laughed as she replied, “Once? I’ve almost kissed a few!”
So how does she ski it if she can’t see it?
I trust him to get me down the mountain as my eyes. He's constantly telling me what is coming up under foot, what is going to happen, terrain changes. And, I'm doing it without sight and the trust of my husband.
Rob, a former ski racer, always skis in front of his wife. He wears light clothing and a bright vest so that she can make out the color spots from behind. They both wear headsets to communicate. They say it’s much like talking back and forth on a phone.
“I’m kind of describing to her everything that’s going through my head about the snow conditions, about the line we’re trying to ski,” Rob said.
He said the tighter their spacing, the more successful they are on a course, especially when it comes to the jumps.
“I’ll try to count it down so she’ll get a sense of when she’s going to be leaving the ground,” Rob said.
The tricky part is telling her when she’s going to land. Timing and trust has taken some work, but over years the Umsteads seem to have found what works.
They live in Park City, and starting in October each year, train at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colo. — where we met them on the slopes. The Umsteads had just returned from World Cup races in France and were preparing for more races in Italy before heading to Sochi for the Paralympics and then returning to Utah at the end of March.
As elite athletes, they live a hectic life of training and competing. But their greatest joy is being parents to their 6-year-old son, Brocton.
“He’s an amazing child,” Danelle said. “Spending all your time training and working hard to represent USA at the Paralympic Games, that’s hard work. Being a mom, that’s the easy stuff. That’s the fun stuff.”
Rob and Danelle know that each day they’re teaching invaluable lessons to their son about hard work and determination.
“I definitely want him to never give up on his dreams,” Danelle said. “And know that anything’s possible, even when it’s impossible. He just has to work hard for it.”
Danelle relearned that lesson of “anything’s possible, even when it’s impossible” in the fall of 2010, while at the top of her game, after their Paralympic wins in Vancouver. Danelle woke in the middle of the night to pain on the right side of her body. In a few hours she would lose all use of the right side.
After rushing to the hospital, doctors eventually diagnosed Danelle with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and central nervous system.
Once again, she hit rock bottom.
“It’s been a roller coaster and I think that, you know, accepting the fact that I do have multiple sclerosis and acknowledging sometimes things might be a little different than it was before, but knowing that I can conquer through it,” Danelle said. “It’s tough. But I know it’s possible.”
Danelle has defied the odds, and through physical therapy and hard work has worked her way back on snow.
Rob said it isn’t perfect, and everything isn’t working completely on the right side of Danelle’s body, but she’s come to know and understand her body better through the process. And, ultimately, it was the love of skiing that gave her the motivation to work hard and get back to the level she was at after the Vancouver Games.
“Being told at a young age that I was going to go blind and then being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I’ve been to one of the lowest spots,” Danelle said.
She understands how trials can get the best of you, and does not sugar-coat that her journey has been hard and will continue to be difficult.
But to others going through adversity she said, “Life is a gift.” And how you live it is your choice.
“I think that my path with my visual impairment and learning how to live with my visual disability has helped me on my path with the multiple sclerosis and learning to live with it,” Danelle said. “I’m a fighter all the way through and I’m not going to give up. Yeah, I might have multiple sclerosis and retinitis pigmentosa, but I’m a strong athlete and I’m going to work hard to be my best.”
She’s blind, yes. But definitely not without vision.