Meet Danelle Umstead, the Paralympian Mom Who Skis Blind

Feb 6, 2018 at 11:00 a.m. ET
Image: USOC/NBC Olympics/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows
Week of Female Athletes

Every time the Olympics rolls around, we find ourselves sitting in silent awe, watching amazing women athletes whose bodies accomplish unfathomable feats of strength, agility and endurance. But I have to admit, I've never been quite as stunned as I was while watching Danelle Umstead ski, because this Paralympian is all of those things: strong, agile, tough and determined. But she's also blind.

Due to the degenerative disease retinitis pigmentosa, Umstead lost the vision in her right eye at age 13; by age 27, she had lost the central vision in her left. That was in 2000 — the year her dad first took her skiing.

"I spent a long time depressed and feeling sorry for myself and feeling like there was not an easy way out," Umstead told CNN. "Through this hard time... my father calls me up on the phone, and he says, 'We're going skiing.' We went down the mountain, and my life changed from that moment forward."

Umstead made her Paralympic debut at the 2010 Winter Games, skiing with her husband, Rob Umstead, as her sighted guide; the pair communicate on the slopes via Bluetooth headset. Today, Danelle holds two silver and two bronze medals and is on her way to Pyeongchang for the 2018 Winter Games.

We spoke to Danelle to learn more about her training, her (nonskier!) son and what it's like to fly downhill at 70 mph — when you can't see.

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SheKnows: How did retinitis pigmentosa affect your self-esteem, and how do you pass what you learned on to your son who is not blind?

Danelle Umstead: Brocton grew up around people with all different disabilities and has learned that if you work hard, nothing can stand in your way. He loves the team and is a huge fan of Paralympic sports.

I was told in the beginning I was "too old" — that it was "too late." I currently compete with girls who are less than half my age. Since 2010, after winning two bronze medals at the winter Paralympics, I was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Even now, I'm judged because of my multiple sclerosis — told I should be proud of my accomplishments and retire. Well, I like to prove people wrong. So I keep fighting, keep pushing, keep working hard and never give up.

SK: Did you ever imagine growing up to be an athlete? What was your dream career as a child?

DU: I grew up not knowing about winter sports. I would watch the Olympics growing up, knowing I would never be an Olympian because of my visual disability. Don't get me wrong; I still was a dreamer, but I thought it was not an option for me. I did not learn about the Paralympics until 2006. But when I was introduced to skiing, I knew right away this was what I loved. I was already an adult when I learned to ski. I have dedicated every moment from then to skiing. Honestly, I think my original dream was to be a dancer!

SK: Well, skiing blind is a dance in its own right! I know your father introduced you to skiing in 2000, right? That's pretty recently considering how far you’ve come.

DU: Yes, my father introduced me to blind skiing after my mother died. He was my first sighted guide. He is who ignited my passion for sport and gave me a new life, a new dream and new goals.

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SK: What’s your favorite snack or meal when training?

DU: For breakfast, it's an egg on toast with spinach, yogurt with granola and fresh fruit, a glass of milk and fresh juice I make in the juicer. For snacks, I love peanut butter, granola bars, smoothies and goat cheese and crackers.

SK: Do you have a favorite skin product that sufficiently battles mountain air?

DU: Essential oils are great for the face and body.

SK: As a parent of one child, do you face pressure to have more? I always get told my son “will be so lonely” as an adult, which seems like bullshit to me.

DU: No, I don't face that pressure at all. My son is our No. 1 fan. He supports us — even though it is a sacrifice when we travel. It is hard leaving him behind. It actually breaks my heart every time. I do believe he has learned a lot through all of our travels, competitions and sacrifices; he's a strong boy who loves his parents and is super-proud of us. He hasn't been able to go to a Paralympic games yet (we've been in the last two winter Paralympics) Our goal is to get him there to cheer for us, his parents, at the 2018 Winter Games.

SK: Is your son an athlete too?

DU: You would think he would be a skier — but his favorite sport to play is hockey. And his second-favorite is basketball.

SK: I hate to ask how you “do it all” but… What’s your best tip for balancing your huge career and being a mom? Does Rob pick up a lot of the parenting slack?

DU: Yes, he does. Rob is my best friend, the father of my child, my eyes on and off the slopes. We are a team in sport and in life. We work hard to be our best at both. We ski, train and compete together... and then go home and raise a son, spend time as a family, laugh and live a wonderful life together. No matter the obstacle, we can conquer it together. He picks me up when I fall and pushes me to be my best. I couldn't imagine a life without this man.

SK: What do you wish people knew about the Paralympics and your fellow athletes that they may not know?

DU: That it is a full-time job — all year, not just the winter months. If not on snow, it's in the gym, using sport psychology, imagery, eating right... it never stops. Also, ski racing in general is an individual sport, but for a visually impaired athlete, it's a team sport. You have a sighted person as your guide; they have to train just as hard on and off the slopes to be faster. The two athletes are not connected in any way, either: It's all voice cues. Trust and communication is key.

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SK: What is your plan for Pyeongchang, and what is your biggest hope and biggest fear or challenge that you face there?

DU: This will be our last Winter Paralympic Games, so I hope to finish strong! My plan and hope is leaving nothing behind and doing my best skiing at the 2018 Winter Paralympics. I hope to inspire all, to show people that no matter your age, ability, disability, whatever life may throw at you: Work hard, and you can make it happen.

The Olympics begin live on Feb. 8 and the Paralympics begin on March 9. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.

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