To legally blind ski racer Danelle Umstead, having vision means “to have sight, an idea or a dream.”
While she has minimal sight, Umstead embraces a courageous idea—skiing untethered down a snow-covered mountain at speeds of up to 65 mph. Her dream is to win gold medals at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and in the process, to inspire others to focus on their abilities instead of their disabilities.
“Through the sport of skiing, I’ve learned that anything is possible,” says Umstead, 42, who lives in Park City, Utah, and trains in Winter Park, Colorado. “I can do anything; I just do it different from most people.”
Umstead and her husband, Rob, 43, made history in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2010, when they became the first husband-and-wife ski race team to compete for Team USA at the Paralympic Games, where they earned two bronze medals. This month, they’ll ski for gold despite another challenge—Danelle was diagnosed soon after the Vancouver Games with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and central nervous system.
In a life filled with adversity, skiing has been Danelle’s anchor and salvation. At age 13, while growing up in Plano, Texas, she was diagnosed with a genetic eye condition in which the retina progressively degenerates, eventually causing blindness. “I spent years feeling sorry for myself and not wanting to live, and feeling like people with visual disabilities couldn’t do anything but sit on the couch,” Danelle recalls. “My mom promised she would be my eyes.”
But in 1999, the woman whom Danelle called her best friend died of colon cancer. “I lost my mom, sight and will to live,” she says.
The next year, Danelle’s dad, Peter D’Aquanni, introduced his daughter to adaptive snow skiing in New Mexico. “He explained that he would be my eyes and guide me,” Danelle recalls. “The moment I clipped into my skis was the moment I started to live again.”
Rediscovering the outdoors, Danelle felt empowered as she skied down mountains with the wind in her face. “Skiing transformed my life. It gave me freedom,” says Danelle, a couch potato turned ski bum.
While living in Taos, New Mexico, she met Rob, a ski coach and former collegiate ski racer. “We got married [in 2008] at the top of a mountain and skied down in our wedding clothes,” she recalls happily. The couple moved to Park City, where Danelle quickly improved her downhill skills through the nonprofit National Ability Center, and eventually began competing at national and international levels.
With spotted vision limited to contrasting colors less than 3 feet away, Danelle depends on Rob as her sighted guide. He communicates constantly with her on the slopes through headsets in their helmets. “I basically think out loud while I’m skiing just ahead of Danelle,” Rob says. “I help her anticipate when to start a turn, when to finish, if she’s going onto a steep pitch or onto a flat. She’s got to have full trust in me, and I’ve got to communicate effectively with her.”
Their teamwork on the slopes takes marital communication and trust to a higher level. “It definitely makes our family better,” says Danelle, about Rob and their 6-year-old son, Brocton. “I’m blessed to have my husband and my soul mate beside me in everything we do.”
While she feels stronger than ever, Danelle temporarily left the sport in 2011 after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She woke up partially paralyzed on her right side one morning, launching her on a frightening journey to learn how to walk again.
“It took me a couple of years to figure out my body and realize that I’m still capable of anything,” says Danelle, who revamped her diet and takes medication daily to manage the disease.
“There were a lot of ups and downs, but ultimately I realized that life is a gift and living it is a choice. So I keep fighting. I never give up.”
The 2014 Paralympic Winter Games are scheduled March 7-16 in Sochi, Russia, with television coverage planned by NBC and NBC Sports Network.