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.