Danelle Umstead, like many downhill skiers, likes to go fast. But when she shoots down the slopes, she’s relying on someone else’s eyes to keep her on the right path. Danelle has visual impairment and skis with a sighted guide: her husband and best friend, Rob Umstead. Together they call themselves “Vision4Gold.”
Danelle was diagnosed at age 13 with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition that eventually causes blindness. Danelle’s dad first took her skiing in 2000, after a tough year in which her vision deteriorated and her mom died. “I was in a pretty bad place when I first started skiing,” she says. “Once I clicked on my boots into the skis, it transformed my life, it was like a light switch. I just started living my life, and skiing is the amazing feeling of freedom and excitement and exhilaration and adrenaline, for sure.”
In 2008, Danelle met Rob Umstead, who became her husband and trusted guide. Rob has been involved in ski racing for over 20 years. He raced for the University of Massachusetts, and after college he was a race coach in New Hampshire, New Mexico, Utah and Oregon before becoming Danelle’s full time guide and coach.
Together they took two bronze medals, in downhill and super combined, at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games.
As Danelle and Rob say, “You don’t have to see it to ski it!”
At this point, Danelle says, she has “spotted vision” and can only see about eight feet ahead – not a big distance when you’re hurtling downhill at speeds up to 65 mph.
Rob skis a few feet ahead and constantly talks to Danelle, via motorcycle headsets attached to their ski helmets, about the kind of terrain she is about to cross. Rob explains, “The biggest thing with us is really keeping the spacing tight. If we get too far apart or I get too far ahead, she gets a little defensive in the skiing and then the speed backs off as well. So the key to success is really us staying tight, and then a lot of communication.”
Since their success in 2010, Team “Vison4Gold” has won multiple US adaptive national championships in slalom, super G, giant slalom, super combined and downhill. Danelle and Rob have also been on the podium in World Cup races every year, and they won the downhill final in Sochi a year ago.
When not skiing, Rob and Danelle enjoy hiking, camping, tandem-bike riding and other outdoor adventures. They’re also busy with their 5-year-old son, Brocton, and Danelle’s new guide dog, Aziza.
Soon after her win at the 2010 Paralympics, Danelle was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Despite this new challenge, she continues to place high in her recent races and is aiming for gold at the Sochi Games.
Update from Sochi: Danelle took home a bronze medal in super combined.
Photo courtesy of NBC Sports.