20 in 10: Alpine skier Danelle Umstead
20 in 10 is www.teamusa.org's latest segment in which we have been featuring Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls for the Winter Games in Vancouver in 10-minute interviews. The Paralympic Winter Games begin March 12, with events in Vancouver and in the mountains of Whistler.
Danelle Umstead, 38, a visually impaired alpine ski racer, is one of the top Americans entering the Paralympic Winter Games. Umstead was 13 when she was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a disease which leads to gradual loss or reduction in visual ability. In 2000, she went skiing for the first time with her father. Nine years later, with her husband, Rob, as her guide, she won five titles in six days at the 2009 Hartford U.S. Adaptive Alpine Championships in Winter Park, Colo. Now the Umsteads, the parents of a 2-year-old boy, Brocton, are preparing for the Paralympic Games.
Loyola University Maryland student Caitlin Schneider checked in with Danelle for this interview.
Q: You were born in Des Plaines, Ill., but where did you grow up as a child?
I grew up in Plano, Texas, the home of Lance Armstrong.
Q: When did you first begin to lose your sight?
I never really had good vision. At the age of two, I was wearing coke bottle glasses. They were so thick the bridge of my nose would get sores and bleed from the weight. As a kid, I used my coke bottle glasses and magnified the sun to burn holes into leaves. Finally at the age of 13, I started losing vision to blind spots, my central field of vision.
Q: What made your father look into adaptive skiing after your diagnosis?
Peter D'Aquanni, my father, said the biggest thing for him was when we started skiing, he saw an instant spark in me. This spark gave me more life and something to look forward to.
Q: When did you participate in your first skiing competition?
December 2006 at The Hartford Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge, Colorado.
Q: What thoughts were going to your head before your first competition?
It was a pretty frightening experience. I did not have any confidence in the person guiding me at the time, along with all the fears a ski racer endures at their first competition. I thought to myself, ‘What are you doing, and why?' It felt like I could not breathe. My heart was beating so loud, I thought everyone could hear it.
Q: How long did you know Rob before he became your guide?
Rob and I met in 2005, married in 2007 and he started guiding me in 2008. He free skied with me since the day we met, but he officially started guiding me the summer of 2008.
Q: How many guides did you have before Rob?
I had three guides before Rob. It was very frustrating. Finding the right guide is the key ingredient to a visually impaired athlete's success. It is very hard to find a guide who could commit fulltime. It has to be someone who has the same goals and dedication. It also has to be someone you can trust 100 percent.
Q: How do you and Rob communicate while skiing?
We wear wireless headsets made by a company called Cardo Systems. This is an open line of communication between Rob and I. We are able to communicate back and forth without any interruptions.
Q: Is there a certain "lingo" you and Rob use to help make communication during a competition easier?
No lingo, we try to keep it simple. But Rob wears a bright orange bib with a dark brown speed suit underneath for contrast. If Rob is within eight feet of me, I can try and pick up the contrast between the two colors.
Q: It seems as though the key to success on a course is communication. What is the most pivotal part of communication between you and your husband?
The inspections before the race are when we discuss the course, and that is the most pivotal part. We also discuss and decide what is important and what Rob needs to make me aware of when racing.
Q: What have been the most memorable moments of your career so far?
The day my husband decided to guide me full time and the first season we won three bronze medals at World Cup finals together, our five national championship titles, and making the U.S. Adaptive Ski Team. Now I compete with my husband as my guide. It is an amazing experience for us as a family.
Q: What has been the most challenging moment of your career?
When Rob decided to guide me full time, it took away our income for our family. Finding a sponsorship to help fund our ski racing expenses was extremely difficult and frustrating. Ski racing is an expensive sport, especially for visually impaired skiers-the cost nearly doubles because now you need to sponsor the skier and the skier's guide.
Q: Where do you spend the most time training?
When we are not training with the U.S. Adaptive Ski Team, we train with the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colorado.
Q: What is your training schedule like?
The U.S. Adaptive Ski Team coaches have put us on a work out regiment on and off the slopes. We have been working hard in the gym to grow stronger. When we ski, we wake up early and train on the snow for three-plus hours at a time, tune our skis and then head back to the gym for recovery workout.
Q: Do you have any rituals before a big competition?
Good rest and just implementing what we have been working on throughout our training sessions. Oh yeah...and breathe!
Q: I recently read that you and Rob hang all your medals on your chandelier. How many medals do you have? Which are you most proud of?
We have 19 medals from last season alone-13 gold, three silver and three bronze. Rob and I are most proud of our three bronze medals from the World Cup finals at Whistler on the Olympic hill-one in downhill, Giant slalom and slalom. Needless to say, we are very proud of all our medals.
Q: What other hobbies do you have besides skiing?
Tandem biking, Stand-up paddle surfing, kite boarding, hiking-I guess you can say I love anything as long as I get to enjoy the great outdoors.
Q: Who would you say is your biggest inspiration/motivation?
I would say my husband and guide, Rob Umstead. He believes in me when I don't believe in myself. He encourages me to do things I never thought I could do. When I am down and feeling the hardships of being visually impaired, he helps me look at the bigger picture. If I cannot see something, he always goes out of his way to make sure I can see it by simply describing it to me. He is my hero and I always want to make him proud. He made my dreams, his own and together, we are making our dreams a reality.
Q: What do you like to do during your off-season?
Rob and I are not only a husband-wife duo on the slopes we have a 2-year old son who we both love to spend all our time with. We pack up our 18-foot travel trailer and camp in the great outdoors. Not only do we love the outdoors, but our son, Brocton, cannot get enough of it. We love to hike as a family and tandem bike too. We just put a kid's seat on the back for Brocton. We love spending time with our family and friends. Life is an adventure for the Umsteads and we love every minute of it!
Q: Any final thoughts before you compete in the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games?
We hope to represent USA in all five events at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games. It is an amazing venue. We were lucky to race at The World Cup Finals on the Olympic hill and we intend to pursue our Vision 4 Gold at the 2010 Paralympic Games.