Almost two and a half years after competing in her first Paralympic Winter Games, skier Danelle Umstead laughs about how much she didn't know.
After she and her husband Rob, who acts as her guide, earned the bronze medal in the visually impaired women’s downhill race of the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, for instance, Danelle was thinking she might just skip the medal ceremony.
It’s just an awards ceremony, right?
“We were like, ‘I don’t think we really want to go to the medal ceremony because we want to be prepared for the next race tomorrow. We’re already moving on,’” she recalls saying. “People were like, ‘No, you want to go to the medal ceremony.’”
Danelle and Rob Umstead embrace on the medal stand at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games.
It was one of those unforgettable moments in life.
“There were 5,000 to 7,000 people cheering and screaming and it was like, ‘Whoa, this is amazing,’ ” she said. “That moment when they put the medals around our necks and said, ‘You made your country proud,’ I was like, ‘I want to do this again. This is what I want. Wow.’ Just those words, ‘You made your country proud.’ Still today, I get tears in my eyes. Wow. I did this. We did this together.”
That bronze, combined with a bronze they captured in the super combined and the whole Paralympic experience — which she said far exceeded their expectations — has the duo hungry for more.
They are ranked No. 4 in the world in the downhill, and Danelle said they’re working harder than they’ve ever worked with the goal of making the U.S. team for Sochi in 2014 and perhaps bringing home something shinier than bronze.
After all, they call themselves Team Vision4Gold.
“Bronze is good, and we’re proud of the bronze and we were glad to represent the USA and bring home bronze, but our vision is for gold,” said Danelle, who’s with Rob in Colorado through Nov. 17 for a national team camp.
Yet the journey from Vancouver to Sochi is longer than four years and thousands of miles. There are peaks and valleys and obstacles to overcome.
* * *
Just months after the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, in October 2010, Danelle woke up one morning paralyzed on her right side. She was hospitalized, tested and eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
For about the first six months, she was afraid her athletic career was over.
But after working hard to regain her mobility and then her fitness, she and Rob focused on taking her to an even higher level.
Though she’s had two relapses, she’s rebounded from each and now claims she feels better physically than at any time of her life. She’s listened to her doctors, taken the right medications and “pushed my body, my mind, everything, to the ultimate limits.”
She believes that because she’s already overcome one life-changing situation — the loss of her vision beginning at age 13 because of a genetic eye condition — she’s been more capable of dealing with another.
“I need to take control of my body and don’t let the disease define me,” she said. “I need to define the disease, basically, and what it is to me.”
This year she’s worked harder in the gym and on an indoor skiing simulator and skied with Rob in Chile. Now she’s looking for good progress this year on the International Paralympic Committee World Cup circuit — including a chance to ski the runs at Sochi in March.
She has no reservations about her physical condition. In a way, she knows it’s crazy, but she calls what she’s gone through “a blessing.”
“I’ve had to learn about my body and my mind and figure out what my body can handle and push it to its limits,” she said. “Over the past year and a half I’ve become mentally and physically strong. I really think we’re going to be unstoppable.”
* * *
Visually impaired skiers compete with a guide, who is much more than that. The guide is a teammate, a coach and a motivator all rolled into one, and the skiers are connected via a headset in their helmets.
When Danelle skis, Rob is out front, telling her about the course, the turns, the conditions, relaying the information he sees with his eyes and feels through his skis.
It’s a team in every sense of the word, and when the bronze medals were draped around Danelle’s neck at Vancouver, they also were draped around Rob.
To Danelle, her trust in Rob and his communication skills is total. She wouldn't have anyone else.
“That’s my husband,” she said. “He’s going to take care of me and he’s going to get me down that (hill). We have the same goals.”
And a shared life in Park City, Utah. They love to hike with their 5-year-old son and her guide dog, Bettylynn, ride their tandem bike and go camping.
Rob, who skied at the University of Massachusetts and has been a longtime ski coach, became her guide full time in the 2008-09 season. Fortunately, they've been able to juggle their training, competition and family with the help of friends, family and sponsors. Rob said the support they have from sponsors like TD Ameritrade Institutional has allowed them to fully focus on their training this year.
As they work toward Sochi, Rob says their performance is always “a work in progress.” They’re constantly tweaking the way they communicate. The biggest thing he has to keep in mind is staying close.
Sometimes that’s harder than it seems.
“We went to our first World Cup race, and I was pretty fired up and shot out at the start,” he recalled. “I took off for four turns and all of a sudden in my headset I hear this, ‘Wait!’ It’s recognizing it doesn't do any good to get down the hill fast. I have to make sure she’s on my tail. The closer we stay, the faster she goes.”
Danelle said that when she’s explaining to people how they work together — she follows his instructions while flying down the mountain — people ask, “How the hell do you listen to your husband?’”
“‘You listen to him? You do what he says?’ I listen to him on the slopes. He listens to me when we get off the slopes.”