Danelle Umstead and her guide Rob Umstead compete in the women's visually impaired super-G at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 11, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
There is a famous scene in the film “Hoosiers” in which coach Norman Dale tries to demonstrate to his Hickory High basketball team that the big stage isn’t all that big after all.
The coach takes out his tape measure and shows the players that despite being at the Indiana state championship, the court is the same size and shape as the one at their gym back home.
The same principle is true at the Paralympic Winter Games, veteran athletes say. Though there may be a big crowd watching and banners everywhere reminding the athletes that yes, this is in fact “PyeongChang 2018,” it’s still the same sport that they’ve been practicing and mastering.
The trick, says Danelle and Rob Umstead, is buying into that.
The Umsteads know the Paralympic experience as well as anyone. Danelle the alpine skier and husband Rob her sighted guide, the Umsteads are three-time Paralympians with three bronze medals to their names. But even for these Paralympic veterans, pretending that it’s just another run down the slopes isn’t so easy.
“When it comes down to it, it’s just another ski race, basically,” Rob said, before pausing. “Although it’s not … but you’ve got to convince yourself.”
If it’s hard for experienced Paralympians, it has to be even harder for first-timers to focus on the task at hand and not get overwhelmed. The Umsteads and other Paralympic vets shared some advice for first-timers with TeamUSA.org.
“I think it’s easy to get caught up in a lot of things that’ll take your focus away from what you’re there to do,” Rob said. “Manage your time well, don’t get distracted by the things that aren’t going to be a positive influence on your performance.”
“Right,” Danelle agreed. “Stay focused on your own process. Like if you normally have a routine every morning, just because there’s something else going on, make sure you keep that routine, and you keep yourself in your own process.”
Sled hockey goaltender Steve Cash is about to claim his fourth Paralympic medal, and is one of just five four-timers from any sport on Team USA. He too spoke about the importance of not getting distracted, but at the same time making sure to soak in the experience. It is the Paralympic Games, after all.
“I would say each and every time I kind of make it a goal to experience something new,” Cash said. “The way I’m approaching it is I’m not going to be there again. So soak it in, because the next day isn’t always a given. So get enough sleep, but at the same time, experience anything and everything you can.”
The notion of maybe not making it back to the Games is especially relevant for alpine skier Andrew Kurka, whose 2014 Sochi Games were over before they even got started. Kurka broke his back on a downhill training run — the second time he has done so in competition — and faced a long road back. But Kurka was grateful for the Paralympic experience he did have the first time around.
“I’ve had a lot of difficulties throughout my career breaking many, many bones and having to overcome that,” Kurka said. “My advice to an incoming Olympian or Paralympian is to learn every little bit that you can, learn from every moment. Win, lose, draw, it’s a learning experience.”
Kurka used his Paralympic experience to claim downhill gold and super-G silver in PyeongChang.
Aaron Pike joins Cash on the four-timer list, and he’s Team USA’s renaissance man, having competed in both the summer and Winter Games in track and field, and Nordic skiing. If anyone should know about the importance of focusing on one thing at a time, it’s him.
“I would say just enjoy the process,” Pike said. “Love the training … don’t look ahead, don’t think too much about the competitions ahead of you, just worry about the days that are in front of you and the training that you have throughout the week. And the medals, all that stuff will find you if you just work hard day to day.”
All the athletes spoke about what a special event the Games are and how each one is memorable whether it’s their first or their fourth. There is always an element of newness, and that first moment of discovery has been shared by rookies and veterans alike.
Cash remarked that it’s a moment he looks forward to each time.
“My first goal is always to see what all the venues are about and just see all the preparation that’s gone into it and have a bigger and more enriched, more profound appreciation for it,” he said. “Because if you’re not appreciating it, I feel like you’re not doing it justice.”
Todd Kortemeier is a sportswriter, editor and children’s book author from Minneapolis. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.