Stronger And Refocused Staci Mannella Finds Success On the Slopes

By Dave Royse | Feb. 23, 2016, 3:11 p.m. (ET)


Staci Manella, pictured at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, is poised to have the best world cup season of her career so far.

Staci Mannella has long been comfortable in situations most people might find a little unsettling, like speeding down a steep ski run she can’t really see, or riding on the back of a big horse that’s jumping over things.

There’s another place Mannella where might need to start getting comfortable: on the medal podium.

The 19-year-old is having a breakout season on the IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup circuit. She won the women’s visually impaired slalom in the season opener in Slovenia, and then she continued a strong January run, winning three more medals, including another gold, at world cup events in Tarvisio, Italy, and St. Moritz, Switzerland.

All that is impressive enough, but even more impressive is that she’s doing it after taking a year off from the sport to focus on school and in a season in which she’s working with a new guide.

Mannella was born with achromatopsia, a genetic eye condition that causes extreme light sensitivity and severely limits her vision. For a visually impaired skier, the guide is like an extension of oneself — someone who skis a few yards ahead and serves as the blind skier’s eyes, relaying terrain information by radio into the competitor’s ear.

New guide Sadie DeBaun is just 17, even younger than Mannella.

“It takes hundreds of runs of skiing together, trying to figure each other out,” Mannella said. “At the beginning, we didn’t know each other at all.

“The biggest thing is trust and communication.”

So Mannella and De Baun room together, they train together in the gym, they even run errands together.

“We’re basically together all the time,” Mannella said. “Our relationship off the hill is definitely a reflection of our relationship on the hill. And without it, I don’t think I’d be able to trust her.”

Mannella is also refreshed and refocused on the slopes after taking a year off following the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games. Though it wasn’t like she was relaxing during the “time off.”

She started college at Dartmouth and indulged one of her other passions, horses, by competing on the college’s equestrian team.

And she was training. 

Mannella took advantage of a program at Dartmouth that helps elite athletes with weight and exercise training. She was also in the gym five to six days a week, building mostly the leg and core muscles needed for skiing, while also working on agility.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was when I left skiing after Sochi,” said Mannella.

In addition to the added physical strength, Mannella said she also has newfound mental strength and confidence that comes from a growing understanding of what she enjoys about skiing and how she wants to excel.

“I’ve gotten a little older, and I’ve probably figured things out a little,” she said. 

Mannella admits that for many years, she was enjoying skiing, but was perhaps a bit ambivalent about being among the best in the world at what she does.

Her former guide, Kim Seevers, who is nearly 40 years Mannella’s senior, was convinced of Mannella’s natural talent and fearlessness, and she pushed her young protégé. Together they found success — including a world cup win and success at the Sochi Games, where Mannella had sixth-place finishes in both slalom and giant slalom.

But for the young skier, sometimes it felt like she was just along for the ride.

“At first, the Paralympics was maybe more her dream than my dream, “Mannella said.

That’s not to say Mannella took Seevers’ guidance for granted.

“I don’t know if I would have been motivated without that (when I was younger),” Mannella said. “Kim definitely pushed me to be a really good athlete.”

But now Mannella doesn’t need that push as much. She has found her own motivation — and for a young skier who is finding her way onto the medal podium more, it may not be what you think.

Mannella, who grew up in Randolph, New Jersey, and learned to ski at Windham Mountain in New York, likes winning just fine. But since Sochi, she’s learned to really enjoy the process of getting to the podium as much as being on it.

“I’m not so hyper-focused on ‘I want a medal,’” she said. “The process of getting there is kind of what shaped me as a person. I’ve learned to appreciate the process of getting there.”

Dave Royse is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and a former reporter for the Associated Press and News Service of Florida. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.