Danelle Umstead: A Trailblazer in Para Alpine Skiing
U.S. Ski & Snowboard is highlighting HERoic trailblazers throughout our winter sports, both past and present. A HERoic trailblazer is a woman athlete who has gone above and beyond in her sport, moving the sport forward through grit and determination and inspiring the next generation of women athletes.
Danelle Umstead, alumna of the U.S. Para Alpine Ski Team, embodies what it means to be a HERoic Trailblazer. As one of the first and most dominant Para alpine ski racers in history, she has pushed the boundaries for her sport on and off the slope.
Through her work as a motivational speaker and the founder of the Sisters in Sport Foundation, Danelle has promoted accessibility and paved the way for the next generation of disabled athletes.
Danelle’s motto is “living the impossible every day.” When she was 13, she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa and early onset macular degeneration, a condition that leads to total blindness. Over time, she lost her central vision and most of her peripheral vision.
Despite her athletic success that we know today, Danelle’s skiing journey didn’t start until she was 29 when her dad convinced her to go to a local hill in New Mexico with him as her guide. She was hooked as soon as she felt the wind on her face as she skied down a run for the first time. Over the next few years, Umstead learned how to ski with a guide before meeting her future guide and husband, Rob Umstead. Rob grew up alpine ski racing and worked as a ski coach across the United States before landing in New Mexico where the pair met and immediately clicked. Meeting a guide that fits an athlete’s needs is tricky on its own, but finding a husband-wife pair is a truly special scenario.
Not only do a ski guides help blind athletes ski down the hill, but they also help individuals in their everyday lives. When skiing, Rob skis slightly ahead of Danelle and constantly talks to her through headsets inside their helmets. He tells her about the course, the terrain and anything else she is about to encounter. They find the most success when they stay tight and keep constant communication. Danelle says that often Rob knows what she needs before she knows it.
The pair quickly found their groove, and Danelle was determined to become a professional athlete. Together, they created Team Vision4Gold, and the Paralympic dream began. Outside of their Paralympic mission, in 2007, Danelle and Rob became parents to their son Brocton. The family is completed by Windy, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. When not on snow, they love to hike, paddleboard, camp, and go on road trips together.
A Story of Perseverance
In more than one way, the partnership between Danelle and Rob was a success. Danelle and Rob went to their first Paralympics in 2010 and took home two bronze medals in downhill and combined.
Shortly after the Games in Vancouver, Danelle was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disease that complicates the body's communication with the brain. The disease paralyzed half of her body, and she was forced to relearn how to walk and eventually to ski again. Despite battling the symptoms of multiple sclerosis every day, Danelle rehabbed and was able to return to skiing, quickly getting back to winning World Cup races with Rob and winning U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Adaptive Athlete of the Year award, setting the tone for the coming seasons.
The pair earned a spot on the 2014 Paralympic Team, where she left with another bronze medal in the combined. Winning back-to-back medals at the Paralympics cemented Danelle’s name as one of the best adaptive skiers and the one to beat moving forward.
The pair went on to compete in two more Olympics, two more World Championships and countless World Cup races. Over the course of their 14-year competitive career, they won three Paralympic bronze medals, four World Cup medals (two silver and two bronze), two overall Crystal Globes, and had 50+ World Cup podiums. And not only was Umstead just a star within the ski world! In 2018, Umstead became one of the celebrities competing on season 27 of Dancing with the Stars, becoming the first-ever blind contestant on the show.
A Lasting Legacy
Throughout her career, Danelle discovered the loneliness that can come with being a disabled athlete and the importance of having a solid support system. She found a tight-knit community through skiing that helped her to push through difficult times in her career, became passionate about providing this support to others and encouraging the next generation of disabled athletes to participate in sports. In 2020, Umstead created the Sisters in Sports Foundation to provide mentorship and education programs to women athletes with disabilities.
Danelle is also a successful motivational speaker, empowering leaders and teams to overcome obstacles to do the impossible every day. Her contributions to skiing and Para sports as a whole are immeasurable, and she continues to show her commitment to empowering the next generation of disabled athletes. Thanks to Danelle, Para alpine skiing is a more welcoming and accessible community than before