Blind skier puts her life in her husband’s hands
HINTERTUX, Austria– Danelle Umstead can’t see when she skis down the mountain.
Instead the US Paralympic alpine ski racer depends on her husband and guide Rob Umstead to get her down safely.
“It’s scary all the time going down the hill and not being able to see,” Danelle said. “We ski up to 70 miles per hour so I’m 100 percent relying on my husband.”
As her guide, Rob skis in front of her calling the commands.
“My job is to be her eyes. I’m basically thinking out loud and telling her everything that is happening,” he said. “If I do my job well and give her a good description, she can be aggressive and really anticipate what’s coming. If I don’t do my job well, she’s kind of second guessing everything.”
They use Bluetooth headsets to communicate on the slopes.
“The headsets in our helmets are vital,” Rob said. “If our battery dies … we’re done for the day because we just couldn’t ski without them anymore.”
Skiing changed her life
Danelle lost all useable vision in her right eye at 13 when she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a retinal degenerative disease.
At 27, she lost central vision in her left eye and felt her life crumbling day by day.
“I spent a long time depressed and feeling sorry for myself and feeling like there was not an easy way out. Through this hard time … my father calls me up on the phone, and he says, ‘We’re going skiing,'” she said. “We went down the mountain, and my life changed from that moment forward.”
Road to the Paralympics
Danelle met Rob in Taos, New Mexico, après skiing.
“I knew from the moment I met him that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him,” she said.
Rob became her full-time guide after they got married.
“Danelle was like, ‘I really want to make the Paralympic team.’ But it was really hard to find a guide that would commit to a year round kind of schedule that we’re on now,” he said. “So we said we’ll give it a season and see how it goes. We fought our way hard to get on the national team, and we kept getting better and better.”
Their hard work paid off. In 2010, they won two bronze medals in the women’s downhill and super combined events for the visually impaired at the Paralympics Winter Games in Vancouver.
But later that year, Danelle faced another medical setback. She woke up feeling numb on her right side after a training session and was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
“I had to learn how to walk again … I had to learn how to ski again,” she said. “It put a big wrench in our skiing career but it put a big strength in our love, and my trust and all that my husband has to offer.”
Rob was with her every step of the way as she worked with a team of experts including neurologists and physical therapists to fight her way back to the sport.
“I was super determined to get back on snow,” she said.
Despite the diagnosis, Danelle, now aged 44, and Rob captured another bronze medal in the super combined event at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. And they’ve got their sights set on 2018.
“I didn’t start living my life until I started sport. And sport has given me the life that I love and enjoy,” Danelle said.
Through it all, skiing has made their marriage stronger.
“We’ve learned a lot through skiing. I’ve learned how to trust. I’ve learned how to communicate,” she said. “Every day is different. Every course is different. Our communication changes, terrain changes. It’s scary. But I like it, and I wouldn’t want to do it with anybody else.”