Staci Mannella was the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing Team at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, where she placed sixth in the slalom and giant slalom races for visually impaired athletes, but to this day, she has yet to compete in a world championships in her sport.
Despite being featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” in 2013, she was too young to be eligible for international competition that year. When the next world championship season rolled around, she chose to take 2014-15 off following the Paralympics in order to focus full-time on her studies at Dartmouth University.
Less than two years removed from returning to the slopes, Mannella will finally see the world stage at this week’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Tarvisio, Italy, where she’ll compete in the super-G, super combined, slalom and giant slalom events.
Mannella, 20, started her 2016-17 ski season slow, taking a while to reacclimatize to the snow as she typically does each winter. But she’s coming into the world championships red hot with a gold and two silver medals from the most recent world cup in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, and she’s insisting she’s finally in the same spot — or even beyond — where she was at the end of last season.
“I would be stoked to be on the podium,” Mannella said. “I tend to be the kind of skier who skis well most of the year, but sometimes at the bigger events like this will crack under the pressure, so I’m trying to break that habit.”
As a New Jersey native, Mannella is naturally more of a technical skier. When she’s not on the slopes she’s competing on Dartmouth’s equestrian team, which she vows is an unorthodox, yet perfect, way to cross-train.
Having ridden horses since she was 10, the “supple art” of equestrian helps strengthen her leg and core muscles, in addition to improving her balance, which is exactly what skiers focus on in the gym at dry-land training.
“I find equestrian to be a really good distraction from my life at school and a really good way to clear my head,” she said. “I love skiing, too, but it comes with a much more competitive mentality for me than equestrian, and right now, at this point in my life, it’s my priority.”
Mannella is now in her second season skiing behind 18-year-old guide Sadie DeBaun, who has been leading her down the slopes since she parted ways with former guide Kim Seevers — nearly 40 years her senior — following the Sochi Games.
“I think at that point, when I was just 12 starting this whole thing, I really needed someone to be a parent figure when we were traveling and teach me the ropes of ski racing,” Mannella said. “Now, I’m skiing with Sadie, who is 18 and younger than I am. We have a really incredible relationship for the amount of time we’ve skied together. It’s a very different relationship dynamic. It’s very helpful that we’re in the same part of our lives, and it’s nice that we have the same goals.”
Mannella actually found DeBaun through one of her closest friends, rivals and career mentors: three-time Paralympic medalist Danelle Umstead.
In 2015, when Mannella was pondering a return to the slopes, she phoned Umstead for advice. She was flustered about finding a new guide and Umstead, who’s from the alpine skiing hotbed of Park City, Utah, insisted she’d easily be able to find someone for her.
Umstead was right. She barely had to search.
“We always joke that Danelle’s blind, so obviously she didn’t look very far, but it so happens that Sadie is Danelle’s direct next door neighbor,” Mannella said. “So it worked out perfectly.”
DeBaun, a ski racer riddled by injuries most of her upbringing, had graduated from high school and was looking for the next step in her life. She’s now guiding Mannella, who was born with achromatopsia, a congenital condition that limits her visual acuity to three feet and also causes extreme sensitivity to light.
It’s been a successful partnership thus far; four of Mannella’s five career world cup race victories have come since she paired up with DeBaun.
“We’ve been figuring each other out for the last year and a half, so we’re pretty excited to bring that into some bigger races now,” Mannella said.
They have their American teammate and rival Umstead to thank for that, and they’ll be cheering for her at the world championships, too.
“To be perfectly honest, if we’re one and two, I don’t really care what the order is,” Mannella said. “I would be just as thrilled to have Danelle standing above me on the podium.”
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.