U.S. Paralympics Alp... News After Gruesome Injur...

After Gruesome Injury, Danelle Umstead Wants To Prove Doubters Wrong

By Ryan Wilson | Nov. 03, 2020, 1:46 p.m. (ET)

Danelle Umstead and her guide Rob Umstead compete in the Women's Visually Impaired Slalom at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games on March 18, 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Earlier this year, Danelle Umstead saw her husband and skiing guide Rob like never before.

They were about to start their fourth downhill practice run in Kimberley, British Columbia. Danelle was feeling great, and she was excited by their three previous runs.

“I could see Rob clearly, like his bright yellow pants, his bright orange shirt,” said Danelle, a three-time U.S. Paralympian who normally sees only the contrast between colors and no details. “He was going onto the pitch with a perfect turn. … I was like, ‘Oh hell yeah, we’re about to attack this!’”

Instead, not much later, Danelle found herself screaming in pain after sliding off course and into netting. She had broken her tibia and fibula, and she had to be rushed into an emergency surgery with her leg turned around.

“It was bad,” she said. “It was really, really bad.”

That injury was Feb. 10. Danelle remembers it well, and it was the start of a long and painful recovery that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic. After she spent six months with strong pain, used a wheelchair for some time and had to tweak her medical treatment, Danelle now has set her sights set on the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. That would be her fourth and final Games.

“I took this COVID time to step back and see what I and Rob and I really want. How we wanted to end our career. What we wanted to do when we ended our career,” said Danelle, who alongside Rob has won three Paralympic bronze medals as well as four medals at the world championships. “That is me realizing that I am not too old. I am only what I make myself out to be.”

Danelle, 48, had previously slowed down her skiing career after the PyeongChang Games in 2018. She said she was hearing chatter from people — and even coaches — suggesting she was too old to continue the sport she loves. She began to doubt herself and thought such comments might, in fact, be true.

Seeing young athletes coming up in the rankings was a reminder of the age gap.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, am I too old?’” she said. “I started doubting myself a lot.” 

She took the 2019 season off when she was having complications with her multiple sclerosis. MS affects her speech, brain and mobility, and she was having a hard time skiing.

“(I thought), ‘I’m older. I have multiple sclerosis, there’s just no way I could continue this sport,” she said.

I truly believe in my heart that, yes, we are strong enough as a team to make this happen, and that we will be ready.

After being removed from the national team for medical reasons, Danelle and Rob decided to get back on the snow. They trained locally at the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah, alongside coach Erik Leirfallom, and they ended up winning the super-G at a February race in Park City.

They then went onto Kimberley, where they skied their first ever downhill and realized, “Oh my god, we’re good at this.” On their fourth practice run, however, Danelle broke a bone for the second time in her life, and her screaming that followed was unintentionally recorded via audio. Rob and Danelle communicate via Bluetooth headsets during runs, and Rob did not stop the audio as he was assisting his wife.

“The whole screaming and everything is audio recorded,” Danelle said, adding she does not want to listen to it or the possible video that may exist. 

Danelle has not been on the snow since, but she said she is stronger now than she was before her injury. Her physical therapy is going well, and she recently had a the first pain-free day since breaking her leg.

“We were all doing the happy dance,” she said when she didn’t feel pain.

She is also surrounding herself with people who believe in her and her potential.

“We’ve been in toxic situations in which people don’t honestly believe in what you’re doing, who you are and your abilities,” she said. “Not having them lets go of a lot of stress. It lets you focus on what you really love, and what you really are capable of.”

The visually impaired skier knows she will encounter barriers to Beijing 2022. She knows her MS could flair up. But she also knows exactly how days until the Games — 497 as of Oct. 23.

“I truly believe in my heart that, yes, we are strong enough as a team to make this happen, and that we will be ready,” she said. “Hopefully, we can do what it takes, you never know.”

Ryan Wilson

Ryan Wilson is a writer and independent documentary filmmaker from Champaign, Illinois. He is a freelance contributor to USParaAlpine.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Danelle Umstead

Alpine Skiing
US Paralympics