The "Going for the Gold" series kicked off our One-Year-Countdown to the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. We will feature a different 2010 U.S. Olympic or Paralympic hopeful each week with a vodcast on the first and second Friday of every month.
(WINTER PARK, Colo.) - Most families use a chandelier for lighting, but in Danelle and Rob Umstead's house, a chandelier is used to display their medals.
"The medals are hanging from our chandelier in the dining room," said Danelle. "We have won so many recently that we are scared the chandelier is going to start falling from the roof."
They have reason to worry.
At the 2009 Hartford U.S. Adaptive Alpine Championships in Winter Park, Colo. at the end of March, Danelle and her guide Rob swept the women's visually impaired events. The Umsteads won five titles in six days in their first season racing and training together.
"We are pretty excited to be doing as well as we are," said Danelle. "We had goals and we over exceeded those goals this season."
At the age of 13 Danelle was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a rare inherited disease in which the retina of the eye slowly and progressively degenerates eventually causing blindness.
"(The disease) has taken my central vision and is taking my peripheral now," said Danelle. "I have what is called spotted vision."
Having never skied before, Danelle's father looked into adaptive skiing in Northern New Mexico at Taos Ski Valley after her diagnosis. In 2000, Danelle and her father took their first lesson together.
"He put together the lesson and I started skiing from then on as much as I could," Danelle said.
Fitting then that Danelle would meet her future husband and guide at the place where she fell in love with the sport.
Rob was a coach at Taos Ski Valley and met Danelle while she was skiing there with a friend. Offered a coaching job in Park City, Utah, Rob asked Danelle to go with him. Four years later, the couple is married and has a 1-year-old son.
Last year, Rob decided to dedicate himself full-time to being Danelle's guide.
"She struggled finding a guide that could dedicate themselves full-time to skiing with her and consistency is extremely important in this game," said Rob. "Switching from guide to guide is a tough thing to adjust to."
Rob witnessed firsthand the determination Danelle had to be the best. He knew that with a full-time guide she would be able to achieve all of her goals.
"The last season watching Danelle get to where she was and knowing that with a little more consistency there she could probably make it over the hump and reach some of her goals, so I put my ski racing career somewhat on hold," said Rob. "My primary focus is guiding Danelle and getting her to where we are hoping to get in the next couple of seasons."
Where they want to be is on the gold medal podium at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver.
"To bring home gold for the USA," said Danelle. "That is the goal."
In the beginning of March they were a few steps closer to achieving that goal. In their first World Cup appearance, the Umsteads took home three bronze medals in the downhill, giant slalom and slalom. It was only their third time competing in the downhill.
"We didn't expect it," said Danelle. "We just wanted to see how we panned up to the competition in the world. We went there to see how much more work we would have to do."
In order to improve upon their results the Umsteads stick to a strict training program.
"We are training in the gates five days a week about four to five hours a day at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park," said Rob. "Then, back home to get a little recovery workout in at the gym and then we do it again."
The results of the World Cup only motivated Danelle more.
"All it did was get me very excited," said Danelle. "We can do this, we have to work hard, but we can do this. We can get gold."
It's that can-do attitude that Danelle wants to share with people with visual impairments around the country.
"I hope that other people with visual impairments watch [the Going for the Gold vodcast]," said Danelle, "so that they can see you can do anything if you put your mind to it."
Danelle has put her mind to a lot. Not only is she a Paralympic skier, but she and Rob are the proud parents of a 1-year-old son, Brockton. The pair has to rely on grandparents and daycare to watch him as they train.
"We train all day and pay a lot of attention to him when we get home at night," said Danelle.
Brockton doesn't mind. He enjoys the success, especially the medals.
"We have pictures of him wearing (the medals)," said Danelle. "It's pretty darn cute. We are blessed for sure."
Spending all day training together has only brought the Umsteads closer.
"It's been a great experience for us," said Rob. "We get to spend a lot of time together."
"Maybe too much sometimes," said Danelle with a laugh.
But in Danelle's opinion you can never spend too much time on the mountain.
"Skiing to me is being free," she said. "And not really feeling visually impaired even though I still need my husband to guide me."
As a guide, Rob has to make every gate just like Danelle. Guides follow the same rules as the skiers. The only exception is that guides do not go out of the start.
The pair uses headsets to communicate to one another as they race down the mountain. From the terrain features to the snow conditions to the lighting, it is Rob's job to make sure Danelle knows exactly what is ahead of her.
"When we are racing, we go up and inspect the course together and we come up with a plan that includes what we are going to do tactically," said Rob. "Plus, we plan the vocabulary we are going to use for the different sections."
Even though their season will end this weekend, Danelle has no plans to take any time off.
"I can't wait to get out on the slopes every day," said Danelle. "It is just a part of me now. I don't even know who I am without skiing anymore."
Rob, Danelle and Brockton will travel to Mt. Hood, Oregon in May to begin their summer training.
Danelle says they still have work to do, but "they are definitely going for the gold next year."
As for that chandelier, the Umsteads say there will always be room for more gold.
For more information on Danelle and Rob, visit their Web site at http://www.vision4gold.org/.