Danelle Umstead, husband Rob Umstead and guide dog Aziza pose at the Team USA Winter Olympic Games PyeongChang 2018 portrait session on Apr. 26, 2017 in West Hollywood, Calif.
For many U.S. Paralympians, particularly those athletes who are visually impaired, guide dogs are some of their closest companions.
With National Dog Day on Saturday, Aug. 26, here’s a look at two U.S. Paralympians – three-time Paralympic alpine skiing medalist Danelle Umstead and six-time Paralympic swimming medalist Becca Meyers – whose dogs have become just as famous and accomplished as them.
Umstead, a visually impaired alpine skier preparing for her third Paralympic Games next March with husband and guide, Rob, is the proud owner of the first two dogs to have ever been a part of the Team USA delegation at a Paralympic Games.
Her black lab, Bettylynn, attended the Paralympic Games Vancouver 2010, where Umstead won bronze in the downhill and super combined.
She first took in Bettylynn to help with her newborn son, Brocton, but quickly realized how helpful her pup could be on the slopes, too. During training sessions and competitions, Bettylynn would always find the open rack where Umstead could set her skis.
Umstead, whose vision is spotted and can only see up to five feet in front of her, also noticed how public perception of her quickly changed whenever Bettylynn was by her side.
“My dog allowed me to be a social butterfly,” Umstead said. “When I have a guide dog, people like me a lot more in public and are more apt to come up and ask me if I need any help, as opposed to if I just had my cane.”
Following her Paralympic debut, though, Bettylynn went blind herself. She developed optic-nerve atrophy and had to retire.
“It’s contagious,” Umstead joked, about losing vision. “It’s OK to say that. She went blind in one eye, so it was the blind leading the blind, and we had to retire her. She was not able to guide me around.”
In September of 2013, Umstead decided to keep Bettylynn at home with her son and took ownership of a second guide dog, Aziza, a yellow lab who would take on the role of being her travel companion. While Aziza’s personality is opposite from Bettylynn’s, her purpose has been the same, and she accompanied Umstead to the Paralympic Games Sochi 2014, where she won bronze in the super combined.
Although Aziza refuses to board a chairlift, her affection is endearing; she’ll say goodbye to every person in a room before she leaves, loves to chase her own tail and respects every other animal she sees.
She’s even tried to play with a wild moose before.
Both Bettylynn and Aziza have circled the globe with Umstead, ensuring she can be independent while on the road.
“My dogs have both helped me when I’ve traveled around the world,” Umstead. “I can’t tell my cane to find the elevator. I can tell my dogs to find the elevator or outside or the restroom or the stairs.
“With so much travel, my environment is always changing, and for me to memorize each environment is super hard. But to have a guide dog help me with the environment I’m in, whether it be in the hotel or gym or mountain, these dogs are helping me.”
Meyers is the proud owner of the Instagram-famous Birdie, a 3-year-old guide dog born and trained in Morristown, New Jersey at The Seeing Eye, a guide dog school for the blind.
Born with a rare disorder called Usher syndrome, Meyers has been deaf all her life, and because of the syndrome has gone blind. Seventy-five percent yellow lab and twenty-five percent golden retriever, Birdie takes Meyers to and from the pool every day by public transportation.
Without Birdie, who she treats “like a princess,” Meyers wouldn’t have been able to navigate her way to three golds and a silver at last year’s Paralympic Games Rio 2016, as well as an ESPY Award in 2015 and several world-record breaking times in the pool along the way.
“She is my eyes in this world,” Meyers said. “Birdie has changed my life and has redefined the word ‘independence’ for me, and she is my biggest cheerleader in and out of the pool.”
“She gives me confidence and independence to get to the pool, as well as all around the country safely. She is my partner in crime and goes everywhere with me. Birdie always has a smile on her face when she is in harness or off harness. She just brings that warmth to your heart. Birdie has taught me to have more patience with myself and my disabilities.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.