Perseverance Gave This Ski Racer Wings
Danelle Umstead is a three-time U.S. Paralympian, three-time Paralympic medalist, Dancing with the Stars contestant, and member of the NAC’s Alpine Ski Team. Diagnosed with a chronic eye condition at age 13 that eventually caused total blindness, Danelle wouldn’t learn about adaptive sports until later in life and “felt unable to fit in.” But when her dad introduced her to skiing at age 29 in northern New Mexico, she realized that skiing was where she “was meant to be.” Danelle was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had to relearn to walk, hop, run, and ski again, which had led her to adopt the motto of “living the impossible every day.” Today, she travels the world to compete in ski racing competitions with her guide and husband Rob.
At what point did skiing become more than a hobby and turn into competitive racing?
When I was 31 I moved to Taos, where I could be closer to skiing all winter long. A year after I met my future husband there, he was offered a job in Park City, UT, coaching for the Park City Ski Team. He asked me to move with him. Once there, I learned about the National Ability Center and the programs they offered people with disabilities. I found out about the competition race program and couldn’t wait to learn to race. Despite my age and length of time on skis, I had a vision. I made a promise to myself not to give up. I knew I would have to train and work harder than ever before. So that is what I did.
Since you broke your leg last year racing, what has been your biggest challenge in terms of recovery?
I broke my tibia and fibula in my right leg during the beginning of the pandemic. Due to lockdown restrictions and a compromised immune system, I was unable to get the in-person help I needed for a quick recovery. Due to pain and a lack of gym work and physical therapy, it’s taken me a long time to heal. Unfortunately, this setback kept me a little behind at the start of this season, in particular training for the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing and competing in the NAC’s Huntsman Cup here on our home turf in Park City. But, again, I am determined and I will not let the voices or the stats derail my vision.
Tell us more about your training regime. And has it changed since your injury?
Before I broke my leg last year, I was able to do a lot more. I spent three hours in the gym, six hours on the slope, went to physical therapy, and more. Since the Injury and COVID, I’ve been forced to modify my routine. I do not spend six hours on the slope. I make sure my time on the slope is quality time training with the NAC and also working on fundamentals. Sometimes it is important to step back and restart.
As a three-time Paralympic competitor (and winner!), what have been the most valuable lessons you’ve learned along the way?
A lot of people don’t know this, but I have over 53 Adaptive World Cup Podiums (I’ve got some World Cup Globes, too), along with being a three-time Paralympian and three-time Paralympic bronze medalist. It is not the medals that mean so much, however, but the teamwork, the process, and the hard work that is the best part—defying the odds.
How do you overcome the challenges life has thrown at you to keep chasing your dreams?
If we cannot believe in ourselves, no one else will. I am lucky to have the support of my husband as well as my family, my sponsors like Toyota USA, and my community within the NAC. They’ve never given up on me. It takes a village in life, and they are my village. We are all better together.
What’s your favorite song to race to, and which songs were you listening to when you won your medals?
Music is a story for me. It gives me hope. It pumps me up. Every day I listen to “Rise Up” by Andra Day to remind me to pick myself up when I fall. And I do fall a lot in life. But I rose up despite my age, health, vision, diagnosis, broken leg … YOU NAME IT. I actually selected this song as my first dance on Dancing with the Stars as the first-ever blind contestant.
Some of my other go-to songs are:
“Scars to Your Beautiful” by Alessia Cara
“Say Hey” by Michael Franti
“Stronger” by Kanye West
My music changes for each discipline, every year.
What are the three favorite items currently hanging in your gear closet?
I love my stylish Backcountry black camouflage puffer—I can wear it on the slopes and look fast, or totally adorable with a pair of jeans and killer boots. I also love my speed suits. They make me feel like a superhero. I feel like I’m putting on my superhero cape and turning on my superpowers.