As Danelle Umstead prepares to compete at the Paralympic Games, she’ll have someone dear by her side as she glides 70 mph down the slopes in PyeongChang: her husband, Rob, who will be her eyes on the mountain, as he has for nine seasons.
Umstead, 46, is a blind cross-country skier, bi-athlete, rower, cyclist and three-time bronze medalist at the Paralympic Games, who first took up skiing soon after a rare condition began taking her sight.
At 13 years old, Umstead was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that involves the breakdown and loss of cells in the retina. The condition causes patients to have increasing difficulties seeing peripherally and at night, and usually leads to blindness. RP, according to the National Eye Institute, can be treated but not cured.
After the death of her mother, Umstead’s father introduced her to adaptive skiing in 2000 as her vision was rapidly deteriorating. With his guidance, Umstead took an affinity to the slopes, and soon developed a new passion.
Turns out, her love of skiing would also help Umstead’s love life: In February 2005, she met her future husband, Rob Umstead, while hanging out at a ski lodge. They married while wearing their skis atop a slope just three years later. When Umstead expressed interest in competing in the Paralympics, Rob — an experienced skier and coach — volunteered to be her guide.
“Ski racing is an individual sport, but for visually-impaired athletes, it’s a team sport,” Umstead told PEOPLE prior to arriving in Pyeongchang. “I need a sighted person to guide me down the mountain. For Rob and I, it’s all about trust and communication. We are constantly working on our teamwork and our communication on getting me down the hill.”
Their bond paid off: The duo nabbed two bronze medals at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics, her first as an athlete. Heading into her third Paralympics, Umstead has refined her skills and strengthened her ability to communicate with Rob on the slopes.
“I love working hard. That’s the best part of it,” she says. “The hard part is all the traveling we do. That’s definitely the hardest part, but being an athlete is the best part.”
Of course, for as much as Umstead must train her body, she must also work to be completely in tune with Rob so it translates to an effective day on the slopes. Rob must guide her through starting a turn and finishing a turn, while also describing the terrain so she can anticipate what to expect. That requires a lot of work, Rob says.
“I’m trying to describe all of that to her and it’s always a work in progress. Timing is everything with us. Our spacing has to be consistent,” he explains. “She can pick up a little image of me if we stay really close together, but if we’ve got the accordion thing going where I’m pulling away and then she’s catching up or vice versa, it doesn’t work so well.”
With this being their ninth season skiing together, they’ve gotten pretty good at knowing what works and what doesn’t. Learning the language of each other has also helped the couple outside of skiing, as well.
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“I think through sport, I’ve learned to trust and I’ve learned how to communicate,” Umstead says. “I think that learning that trust with my teammate, which is my husband, it only flows into my home life and it’s pretty simple.”
The close-knit couple has come a long way since their first Paralympic Games in 2010.
Shortly after the Games came to a close, Umstead was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She lost feeling on the right side of her body, and had to learn to walk and ski all over again. Umstead says the diagnosis taught her much about herself.
“That has interfered and helped me in many ways, because I’ve learned so much about my body and my limits and pushing myself beyond my limits,” she says. “I might have bad days, but every day I’m living the impossible. Every day, I’m doing things that people don’t even think they can do with the abilities that they have.”
As an older athlete without sight and with multiple sclerosis, Umstead has become a role model to a large array of people learning to live with a disability or about staying competitive as you age. With this potentially being her last Paralympic Games, Umstead says she will be leaving with gold, regardless. That’s because the couple’s 10-year-old son will be there to watch his parents for the first time.
“He’s never been to either one of our Paralympic Games,” Umstead says. “This will be the first time he’ll get to see his mom and dad on the big stage and that will be really amazing. That’s a gold medal win for me.”