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“Vision,” Danelle Umstead says, “is to have sight, an idea, or a dream.” Danelle’s immediate dream is to win gold for the U.S. in alpine skiing at the upcoming Paralympic Winter Games  (March 7–16) at Sochi, Russia. Danelle teams with husband Rob Umstead who acts as her coach and sighted guide as they race through the courses. Rooting the couple on in Sochi will be Aziza, Danelle’s new guide dog. Danelle began working with Aziza this past summer, after her longtime guide dog Bettylynn (shown here with Danelle and Rob) was forced to retire due to optic nerve atrophy. Bettylynn will be pulling for the couple back at their home in Park City, Utah, with their son Brocton.
At the age of 13, Danelle was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition where the retina progressively degenerates and eventually causes complete darkness. Her vision is “spotted” and she can only see up to three to five feet in front of her, and even then, only contrasting colors without any level of detail. In 2011 she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Still, none of these hurdles have kept Danelle from achieving her best.
Danelle was introduced to adaptive skiing by her father in 2000, who acted as her guide. She quickly fell in love with the sport—the freedom, the speed, the exhilaration. After she began training and working fulltime with Rob in 2008, competitive success soon followed with Paralympic Bronze medals in Vancouver, 2010, nine World Cup podiums and Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Championships. Her success relies heavily on trust and communication—100 percent trust in Rob as he guides her down the hill at top speed. It’s similar to the trust and communication that she had with BettyLynn and is working to build with Aziza. Danelle and Rob have created Vision4Gold.org  as a vehicle to mentor junior disabled athletes by sharing her story and offering encouragement. We’re hopeful that Danelle realizes her vision in Sochi.
Update: Danelle has finished 5th and 4th in her first two Paralympic events at Sochi and hopes to climb the medal stand sometime in her next three races.
Photos: Mitchell Haaseth/NBC Olympics