US Sled Hockey: Going for Gold x2

140311jk-hockey-007Following their  3-0 win over Canada today, the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team goes on to face Russia in the Gold Medal match on Saturday, March 15. If they win, they will defend their Vancouver Gold medal, making history as the first team to win consecutive Paralympic Games titles.


Known as “sledge hockey” in most of the world, the U.S. calls it “sled hockey.” It was invented in Sweden in the 1960s as a form of rehabilitation, and is designed to allow athletes with physical disabilities (e.g. those with spinal cord injuries or amputations) to play ice hockey.


Of note, four military veterans are part of the U.S. team:

  • Goalkeeper Jen Lee (San Francisco, Calif.) – Sergeant, U.S. Army
  • Defenseman Rico Roman (Portland, Ore.) – Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army (Retired)
  • Forward Paul Schaus (Buffalo, N.Y.) – Corporal, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
  • Forward Josh Sweeney (Phoenix, Ariz.) – Sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
Love this photo with a view of the puck in the net

Love this photo with a view of the puck in the net

According to

Equipment for this sport consists of a light weight tubular framed sled, about 4-5 feet long and approximately 3 inches off the ice, with two hockey skate blades mounted beneath the seat. A portion of the front frame rests on the ice and provides lateral stability. Straps around the ankles, knees and waist securely hold the player on the sled. Two 1.5 feet “sticks” are used. The sticks are modified hockey sticks with 4 cm teeth attached to the bottom of the non-blade end. Leaning left or right while digging the stick into the ice, turns the sled. Players slide to a stop on one or both blades like a skater. All players wear regulation protective hockey equipment.





Don’t miss it! NBC will air the Gold medal game – US vs. Russia – at 1pm ET on Saturday, March 15.


Paralympic Ups & Downs

140310jk-jallen-002While we’re asleep here in the U.S., the Paralympic skiers are competing,  leaving everything on the course. I’ve been a bit sleep-deprived this week, as I’m compelled to check my phone and Facebook every time I wake up in the wee hours of the morning!

This morning I was met with updates that hit me in the heart — 18-year old Stephanie Jallen’s Super G bronze (her first Paralympic medal!) — and then in the gut: two more scary crashes during the women’s mono-skiing Super G. The U.S. Team in particular has had several crashes in competition so far, and I am so incredibly relieved to know that Alana Nichols, Stephani Victor and Tyler Walker are all healing and on a good path to recovery. I’m in awe, as I watch from afar their strength and spirit and the support of the team, coaches, friends and fans from around the world. Let’s all continue to send prayers and positive energy to Alana, Stephani, Tyler, and to all the athletes!

Stephanie Jallen competing in Super G

Stephanie Jallen competing in Super G


Laurie Stephens, who took Bronze in the Super G

Stephani Victor, competing in Super G

I love my husband’s morning (my time) updates from Sochi, but today stood out, when he told me he cried (twice) during Stephanie Jallen’s award ceremony. After skiing with Stephanie at The Ski Spectacular event in Breckenridge — when she was only 9 or 10 — Joe was so excited to be there in person for her first medal.


Stephanie was born with a rare birth defect called CHILDS — Congenital Hemidysplasia with Ichthyosiform Erythroderma and Limb Defects Syndrome. CHILDS is a chromosomal disorder that affects the entire left side of the body, leaving Jallen with only one leg and one fully developed arm. Instructors initially wanted to put Stephanie in a mono-ski, but she insisted on learning to ski standing up.

From today’s USA Daily: “This is absolutely incredible,” Jallen said. “It’s something I only dreamed about. I have never been a bigger believer that dreams come true than right now. I’ve imagined it for the last nine years of my life, and in my very first run in the Paralympic Games I score a bronze.”

Take note: this is not the last time you’ll hear her name!140310jk-jallen-a-001140310jk-jallen-002140310jk-jallen-001

Paralympic Primer – Sochi 2014

140305jk-sochi-002It’s simple: I’m passionate about The Paralympic Games.

I worked as a press officer for U.S. Paralympics Swimming in Athens and Beijing, and for the U.S. Paralympic Alpine Skiing Team in Torino. When pregnant in 2010, I stayed involved by writing a few blogs for Women’s Adventure Magazine from Vancouver. My photographer husband and I have been so lucky to be part of this movement – and really, this extended family – together. He’s been shooting the Paralympics since Athens and is currently in Sochi capturing these amazing athletes in action.

For those not close to the Paralympics, though, there remains quite a bit of confusion (even for some of my closest friends and family.) So, on the eve of the Paralympic Winter Games Opening Ceremony, I’d like to offer a quick overview to get everyone in the Paralympic spirit!

First off, a few fast facts:

  • The Paralympic Winter Games take place March 7-16, at the same venues as the Olympics, in Sochi.
  • The name “Paralympics” is not about “paraplegia.” It combines the Greek preposition “para” (meaning beside/alongside) and “Olympic.” The Olympics and the Paralympics are separate, but exist side by side.
  • I often hear people mistakenly say “Para-Olympics” – don’t do it; it’s the “Paralympics.”
  • 700 athletes from 45 countries will compete in Sochi. It is poised to be the biggest Paralympic Winter Games ever, with 200 more athletes compared to Vancouver, and competitors from four new countries represented.
  • It is an elite competition, akin to the Olympics, with 72 medal events.
  • Athletes will compete in five sports: Alpine Skiing, Para-Snowboarding (making its Paralympic debut at Sochi), Nordic Skiing (including biathalon and cross-country skiing), Wheelchair Curling and Sled Hockey.
  • The six disciplines include: Amputee; Cerebral Palsy (including traumatic brain injury or stroke, which affect muscle control, balance or coordination); Visually Impaired/“VI” (ranging from partial sight to total blindness); Wheelchair (including athletes with spinal cord injuries, as well as some with lower limb amputations or polio); Intellectual Disability (those who have a significant impairment in intellectual functioning with associated limitations in adaptive behavior); Les Autres (including people with a mobility impairment, e.g. Dwarfism, Multiple Sclerosis, that is not included in the other categories.)

140305jk-sochi-003Where to Watch

While I’ve heard many complaints about the lack of primetime coverage, I have to say I’m personally thrilled to see this year’s broadcast line-up. It continues to grow every year, and slowly but surely, I believe that the Paralympics will get the attention it deserves.

In the next week and a half, NBC Olympics and the USOC will broadcast an unprecedented 52 hours of coverage (27 of which will be live) for the Sochi Paralympic Games.

  • First chance to watch: Friday, March 7, 11:00am ET, Opening Ceremony on NBCSN
  • Complete broadcast schedule is here (Scroll down the page, where it’s not segmented out by sport, and where you’ll see some more reasonable viewing hours – e.g. the Sled Hockey game times, as well as Daily Paralympic Coverage.)
  • will also live stream all events
Alana Nichols competing in Vancouver (Joe Kusumoto Photography)

Alana Nichols competing in Vancouver (Joe Kusumoto Photography)

Want to Read / See More?

In case you’re interested in learning more -and for those of you who said your kids were asking questions! – here are a few more links to start with.

  • Story I wrote from Vancouver about Danelle Umstead, a visually impaired skier, whose husband is her racing guide.
  • Story I wrote from Vancouver about Alana Nichols, a two-sport phenom in Alpine Skiing and Wheelchair Basketball (summer games), who recently played a Paul Rudd prank on Conan O’Brien (hysterical – absolutely worth watching!)
  • Link to shots from the Vancouver 2010 Winter Paralympic Games from my husband, Joe Kusumoto.
  • Additional resources from U.S. Paralympics.

I promote what I love. And I truly hope that more people are able to hear the stories, witness the athleticism and get an opportunity to connect – even if in small ways – with the Paralympians and the Paralympic Movement.

Paralympian Alana Nichols: A Golden Mono Skiing Debut

Off the mountain, Alana Nichols has a magnetism that draws people in. On the race course, she’s a force to reckon with.

In her first Paralympic Winter Games and less than two years after starting to mono ski competitively, Alana has dominated in the Women’s Sitting category. Her gold medal in the Giant Slalom represented Team USA’s first gold of 2010. She added a second gold on Thursday in the Downhill, beating silver medalist and teammate Laurie Stephens by nearly five seconds, and won silver in today’s Super-G, edged out only by the final skier, Claudia Loesch of Austria.

Competing on the international stage is nothing new to Alana. As a member of the women’s wheelchair basketball team, she won gold at the Summer Paralympics in Beijing, China. This week’s wins make her the first female Paralympian to claim gold in both the Winter and Summer Paralympic Games.

From Wheelchair Basketball to Ski Racing

Alana first started mono skiing in 2002, two years after she broke her back in a snowboarding accident. For several years, she skied recreationally, but didn’t set her sights on Vancouver until 2008. After returning from the Beijing Paralympics and moving from Alabama to Winter Park, Colorado, the world of ski racing remained an unknown. It was her fellow teammates who made the transition work.

“Even though ski racing is an individual sport, we’re still very much a team,” Alana said.

Compared to basketball, where 12 girls work as a unit at all times, the solo training program of racing took some getting used to. But it wasn’t long before she got into a comfortable routine and the intensity of training five days a week.

U.S. mono skier Carl Burnett said it’s humbling to see Alana progress because she can accomplish in a matter of weeks what takes him a season to figure out.

Alana attributes her success to the fact that before her accident, she was a snowboarder, so knows what an edge feels like and “how to rail a turn.” Plus, during seven years of wheelchair basketball training, she developed all the core muscles (a strong upper body) and movements (like how to engage your obliques) needed for mono skiing.

“I came into skiing ready to just learn it,” she explained. “I didn’t have to develop my body. I was just a sponge and took it all in.”

Add to that her natural competitiveness and you’ve got the makings of Team USA’s latest golden girl.

“She listens and executes,” said Ray Watkins, head coach of the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team. “She has the mind of a winner.”

Paralympic Dream Come True

Leading up to the Paralympic Games, Alana shared that a big part of her experience in Whistler is skiing for her brother, who passed away last June.

“After you lose someone, you want to give up on everything,” she said. “I know he would’ve wanted me to keep skiing. It’s huge motivation for me.”

Following her initial first place finish this week, there was no question about the impact of the gold medal. Her uninhibited tears and grace revealed a humility that perfectly balances her competitive side.

With three medals and a true appreciation for everyone around her – from family and coaches to fellow teammates and course workers – Alana is turning heads in Whistler. She’s an athlete to keep an eye on, both in future Paralympic competition and as an important contributor to the Paralympic movement.

Alana realizes that there are so many women with disabilities who don’t realize their potential. “I like to show people that whatever their difference is or their disability, they can get out and do whatever they can with it,” she said. “That’s one of my driving forces.”

Alana competes in her final race, the Super Combined, on Saturday, March 20. For more on Alana and Team USA, visit US Paralympics.

Acquired Adrenaline

During the 2008-2009 ski season, Danelle Umstead raced in her first speed event. She side slipped the entire course and “didn’t even point them” (referring to aiming her skis downhill.) It was the scariest thing she’d ever done. She’d never do it again.

Fast forward one year and she has a whole new perspective. Every time she gets to the bottom of the race course, she wants to go again.

“I like to go really, really fast,” she said, explaining how her strongest races are now the speed events: the Downhill and the Super-G. “It’s an acquired adrenaline.”

In Whistler, B.C. this week, Danelle will prove her love of speed in her first Paralympic Games.

Her Trusted Guide

At the age of 13, Danelle was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition where the retina progressively degenerates and eventually causes blindness. Now 38, she has “spotted vision” and can only see up to five to eight feet in front of her, and even then, only contrasting colors without any level of detail.

As a visually impaired (VI) skier, Danelle relies on a guide – husband and best friend Rob Umstead – to help her navigate the course. Compared to guides she’s worked with in the past, “there’s a different type of trust and experience with my husband,” she said. “We have 100 per cent trust and can only get better and better from here.”

Rob wears a combination of a dark racing suit and bright orange tee shirt and bib, creating a high-contrast target that Danelle can spot as she skis behind. Danelle’s ability to get down the course also depends on motorcycle headsets, which they both wear attached to their ski helmets. Rob is constantly communicating about where to turn and what she’ll feel with the terrain, keeping her on course even if she loses sight of him.

“It’s like he’s reading a book, step by step down the mountain,” Danelle said. “He’s talking in my ear and keeping an open line of communication.”

Vision for Gold

Danelle came into the 2010 Paralympics after a promising season, where she and Rob won the Globe as overall World Cup champions in the VI classification. They also earned the Super G Globe, took second place in the Super Combined and Downhill, and finished third in Giant Slalom (GS.)

She’s still chasing that same success with her Paralympic debut. In Sunday’s Slalom, she caught a tip and lost a ski on a gate, posting a DNF (did not finish.) Tuesday, after a strong run through most of the GS course, she fell on her second run, hiked back to the gate and finished in ninth place. The weather played a role in her fall, as the incessant rain hammering her goggles blocked the little vision that she does have.

With the technical races behind her, she looks forward to her stronger speed events, sharing that “my vision is different every day, but you just have to adapt and move on.”

“This will all be worth it if it’s sunny on the Downhill day,” Rob said.

Downhill races are scheduled for Thursday, March 18; Super-G for Friday, March 19; Super Combined (a combination of Super-G and Slalom) for Sunday, March 21.

Shared Dreams

After first learning to ski in 2000 in Taos, New Mexico, Danelle now lives and trains full-time in Winter Park, Colo. When they’re not skiing, Danelle and Rob find every excuse to get outdoors to hike, camp, tandem bike and spend time with their two year old son.

She gets goose bumps thinking about what they have created as a team: “I’m lucky I get to go on this journey with my husband. He helped make my dreams come true and now they’re his dreams too.”

Thinking about the fact that one day she will go completely blind, Danelle admits that 90% of the time she’s strong. But there are days she’s not. “I appreciate every bit of light that comes in through my eyes,” she said. “There will be darkness. I just don’t know if it’s tomorrow or another five years from now.”

Since Rob quit his job to train full-time with Danelle, the husband-wife team relies on support from sponsors and donations. For more information, visit Vision4Gold.