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.