Paralympic Skier: Danelle Umstead

Visions of Gold
By The Bark Editors, June 2015, Updated June 2021

To have vision, says Danelle Umstead, “is to have sight, an idea or a dream.” Her immediate vision is to win gold for the U.S. in alpine skiing at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Danelle’s husband Rob Umstead, her coach and sighted guide, will be leading the way through the courses.

Last summer, Danelle’s longtime guide dog, a black Lab named Bettylynn, developed optic-nerve atrophy and had to retire, so Aziza, her new canine guide, will be rooting the couple on in Sochi. Bettylynn, the first guide dog to represent the U.S. at the Winter Olympics in 2010, will be pulling for the couple back home in Park City, Utah, along with their son, Brocton.

When Danelle was 13, she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition that eventually causes complete darkness. Her vision is “spotted,” and she can only see up to five feet in front of her. Even then, colors have to be highly contrasting for her to make them out, and she sees little to no detail. Then, in 2011, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Still, neither of these hurdles has kept her from achieving her best.

Her father introduced Danelle to adaptive skiing in 2000 and acted as her guide. She quickly fell in love with the sport—the freedom, the speed, the exhilaration. She began training and working full-time with Rob in 2008, and competitive success soon followed: Paralympic Bronze medals at Vancouver (2010), nine World Cup podiums and Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Championships. Her success relies heavily on the 100 percent trust and communication she shares with Rob as he guides her down the hill at top speed. It’s similar to the trust and communication she had with Bettylynn and is working to build with Aziza.

Danelle and Rob have created Vision4Gold.org as a way to mentor junior disabled athletes by sharing her story and offering encouragement. We’re confident that Danelle will realize her vision.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 77: Spring 2014

Photo Mitchell Hasseth / NBC Olympics