Danelle Umstead is going from #TeamVision4Gold to #TeamBlindFaith – and she’s making history in the process.
When the Paralympic alpine skier makes her debut on reality competition television show “Dancing with the Stars” Monday night, she will become the first visually-impaired contestant in the show’s 27-season history. It’s the realization of a dream that she first voiced more than 10 years ago.
Since then she has made three Paralympic teams and won three Paralympic bronze medals, all with her husband and skiing guide, Rob, the other half of Team Vision4Gold.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Umstead, 46, is paired with professional dance partner Artem Chigvintsev as Team Blind Faith, in search of the show’s coveted mirror ball.
In addition to dealing with Umstead’s retinitis pigmentosa and early onset macular degeneration, which has left her with no useful vision, they are also working with the affects of her multiple sclerosis, which she was diagnosed with in 2010.
Umstead spoke to TeamUSA.org ahead of her dancing debut about learning to dance with no sight, her favorite dance move, having Para snowboarder and Season 18 runner-up Amy Purdy as a mentor and much more.
How did you react when you first received the call to be on the show?
It was really crazy. We were in the car going to a camp in Oregon to train, and I was listening to my email. I read the email and said, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to throw up.’ Rob said, ‘Do I need to pull the car over?’ and I said, ‘I’m really going to throw up,’ so he said he’d pull the car over. I said, ‘No, I won’t actually throw up.’ Then I thought I was being Punk’d because this is a dream come true.
In 2007 I stood in front of the TV, holding my son Brocton as a newborn baby, and said out loud, four inches from the TV screen, ‘I want to be the first blind person on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’’ I figured I told that story to somebody and now I’m definitely being Punk’d, so I didn’t even respond to that email. After the shock wore off, I’m so excited and I’m honored, and I can’t believe life came full circle and my dream is really coming true. You better be really careful what you wish for!
Knowing what a challenge this would be, why did you want to participate?
Dancing is beautiful, and I know it’s a visually beautiful thing and I’m learning how visual it is, but I love music and I’ve always wanted to learn how to move the right way to music. I’ve always said when Rob and I ski, it’s a beautiful dance, and I’ve always wanted to dance. I didn’t realize how much detail there is in dancing until now, but I’m even more excited now. This is such a huge challenge dealing with MS and my visual imparity.
How would you describe your dance moves prior to training for the show?
I don’t know how to dance, and I don’t have rhythm. I could do the moonwalk, I’m really good at the moonwalk – at least I think I am! I keep telling Artem, ‘You should put the moonwalk in.’ He doesn’t think it’ll help us much.
Did you watch Amy Purdy’s season, and have you been in touch with her?
Of course, I watched Amy, and I remember telling Amy in Sochi, ‘I’m so jealous of you that I could punch you! I want to be on that show.’ Now Amy is my amazing mentor. I’ll text her about something and she’s right on it, so I’m really glad she went through it first. Amy’s been incredible through this journey. She tells me the reassuring stuff that I need to hear. She’s got my back.
What was Artem's reaction when he learned you were his partner?
I think in the beginning it was, oh wow, what a challenge this is going to be teaching a visually impaired person. I heard him tell this story that dance is so visual, he teaches by showing people the moves. But he was willing to take on this challenge. He said, ‘You told me you were blind, then you told me you have MS. I think it should have been the other way around, Danelle: I have multiple sclerosis, and I’m blind.’ The MS has affected us. Not that the blind part hasn’t, because that’s been such a challenge on its own – trying to teach me through voice and feeling. But when the body gets in the way and I don’t know what’s happening or I don’t have control because of the multiple sclerosis or my brain’s not clicking, it’s an even bigger challenge. Now try teaching someone through words and through feeling when nothing is connecting in their brain. It’s crazy.
What did you expect to be the greatest challenge of this journey, and how has that played out?
Going into this, there were several challenges that I thought about, and one of them was will my partner be OK dealing with a person with a visual impairment and then on top of that with multiple sclerosis. Will I connect with that person and earn his trust? And then I worried about, is he going to be too soft on me because I have a disability and he’s scared to push me. I need to be pushed; the more you push me, the better. I’m a hard worker. Give me a challenge, even if I think it’s not possible in the moment, I want to practice my ass off and hope to make it possible.
So, I really was worried about the dynamics of my partner because my partner in skiing is my husband and he had to earn my trust, too, and it’s taken him 10 years, and I have to give my trust to my dance partner, who I don’t know, in less two weeks. I know that was going to be my biggest challenge and Artem has stepped up to the plate and is way better than I could have ever expected. It brings tears to my eyes how incredible he is. And he does not take it easy on me. If I’m not getting something, he pounds it into me. ‘Danelle, pick that arm up! Danelle, put those fingers up! Danelle, do your neck!’ I’m overwhelmed and he’s still constantly giving me those reminders and it feels like he’s picking on me and it feels like I’m not doing anything right, but when it comes to him recognizing that something isn’t right because of my MS, he’s very compassionate. He’s turned out to be so incredibly amazing.
Another thing I was worried about is him being in my space. Rob and I are not physically connected. I was worried for Artem. Does my breath stink? Does he smell my armpits? I ate garlic, is he going to smell it?
And then just feeling pushed around. Being visually impaired, I like to hold onto things and be pulled; I don’t like to feel pushed. Artem is moving me into the movements a different way. I’m always feeling off-balance and unsure of what I’m doing because of what I’ve learned as a visually-impaired person, so that has been an obstacle.
With dancing, I just really thought I was going to moving my legs and moving my arms and I did not realize how much visual detail there is in every little thing you do. It’s a little overwhelming. Like, are you kidding me, you want me to do what with my fingers? Who even sees that? It turns out that’s what people are looking for.
For those unfamiliar with the specifics of your visual impairment, what and how much are you able to see?
I really don’t know because I don’t see. I’ve never seen really well; even when I was a kid I had correctable vision, but it was never great. Now I have no central vision whatsoever, so there’s big, black blind spots in the central part of my vision, and that’s the same with my outer part of my vision, the peripheral vision, there’s big, black blind spots closing into my central. So, I just have little pieces left between the two here and there. Some part of the blind spots connect, and then there’s some open space with a little bit of vision. That vision is not super clear. It’s not like I can look at somebody and know who they are. I know who people are by mannerisms or by somebody telling me. I don’t have detail. …
If anything is moving, like in dance, I cannot figure out what’s going on. The most challenging part of dancing, besides the whole dance and everything that comes along with it, is going in and out of light, because I black out and see a light and then I black out. It’s like constantly hitting a wall. Lights are constantly giving me this raw reaction to what’s actually happening. When we dance, all I see is lights in and out, in and out, and it’s pretty drastic what’s going on – almost like a panic light. It’s brutal.
How much has the multiple sclerosis affected your training?
A lot. It has affected me cognitively, memorizing steps, understanding steps. When I was first diagnosed in 2010 I had that awful attack where I couldn’t move from my rib cage to my toes on the right side. I thought I had learned all the movements back, which I may have done in skiing, but there’s so many small movements in dance that I’m realizing I’ve got a lot of stuff going on internally. Artem and I were learning a new move yesterday and I don’t know how to do it. It reminded me of when Rob was re-teaching me to hop on my right side, and my brain and body weren’t connecting on how to hop on my right side. It’s kind of scary, so I’m realizing I’m affected a little more than what I’ve known. I’ve been fatigued a couple of times and it’s gotten in the way. Artem and I are learning how to push through, though. He has sent me home once, knowing I needed to rest. I learned how to push through in skiing, I’ve just got to figure it out in dance. To just realize I don’t have as much control over my body as I thought I did was a real big eye-opener for me where I got emotional over it.
Have you impressed yourself with your improvements so far?
Yeah, you should see me from day one to now! Absolutely. I think it’s all about putting so much time and energy into something and learning something and giving your whole heart and having an amazing teacher that believes in you. When we get on that stage, all I can do, like I do with Rob, is trust in what I’ve been training and put my best self out there for what I’ve learned. Hopefully it comes out as beautiful as it feels. I know there’s a lot more to learn and hopefully I get to learn it. I’ve only learned one dance and it’s not perfect, but I’m going to be my perfect.