When Danelle Umstead carries the U.S. flag into the Opening Ceremony of the 2022 Winter Paralympics on Friday, she will carry not only the highs and lows of a 21-year alpine skiing journey, but also the athletic dreams of women just like her.
The 50-year-old Umstead, a three-time Paralympic medalist who competes in alpine skiing’s visually impaired classification (B2), is making her fourth appearance in the Winter Paralympics, but her platform this go-around extends well beyond her performance goals or even promoting her personal message of “living the impossible every day.”
In November 2019, Umstead launched her non-profit, Sisters in Sports Foundation, which is dedicated to creating a community of active women and girls with disability by providing mentor and education programs. Sisters in Sports’ vision is for women to “empower, encourage and motivate each other to try new things and master their impossible regardless of their differences.”
— Team USA (@TeamUSA) March 2, 2022
“Without mentorship and establishing relationships with all the amazing athletes – I believe I still would be in (a) dark place,” writes Umstead on the site. “The community of women and girls in sport, who chose to lift me up and allowed me to lift them up as well, believed in me and most of all encouraged me to be ‘my best self.’
“[They] have helped me see light in a world I thought was full of darkness and I want to share those superpowers with the next generation of strong disabled women.”
Umstead started losing her eyesight when she was 2 years old, and she was 13 when she was diagnosed with an eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa and early onset macular degeneration. When doctors told her she would slowing continue to lose her sight and would one day live in total darkness, Umstead said the news “became a dark shadow” that haunted her through her 20s.
She was 29 when her father introduced her to adaptive skiing, and Umstead said, “I knew from the moment I skied, I was where I belonged.”
Umstead quickly set lofty goals of becoming professional athlete and making the 2010 U.S. Paralympic Team for Vancouver. She made the team, and she brought home two bronze medals in 2010 – in downhill and super-G – and she followed up in 2014 with a bronze in the super combined in Sochi.
However, it’s her what-matters-most mentality that drives her next chapter with Sisters in Sports. “While the medals, globes, awards and fame changed my life,” she said, “the journey, the relationships and the feeling of ‘mastering my impossible’ was what truly made me the strong woman I am today.”
Through her foundation, Umstead aims to not only create more opportunities but also make those opportunities more accessible and perhaps make other women’s journeys a little easier. Her commitment has fueled her through the peaks and valleys since the 2018 Paralympics, where she competed in three events and finished sixth in super-G and eighth in both super combined and giant slalom.
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Less than six months after competing in PyeongChang, the Park City, Utah, resident joined the Season 27 cast of “Dancing with the Stars,” where she partnered with Artem Chigvintsev and finished 12th. A little more than year later, Umstead launched Sisters in Sports while picking up the pace in training for Beijing. She was competing in Canada when she suffered a horrific crash in a downhill, breaking her tibia and fibula and undergoing three surgeries during 2020.
“I haven’t been in a downhill since,” Umstead recently told Park City radio station KPCW. “I was already qualified (for DH in Beijing) with my points, so that was good news. But there’s a lot of mental toughness that I get to work through.
“I know how to do that. I’ve just got to put it into play while I’m there and not think about the negatives and all about the positives and enjoying myself.”
With no spectators at the Paralympics, Umstead is one of the only athletes who has a family member with her in China. Her husband, Rob Umstead, has served as her competitive guide since 2008 and will be with her in what could be a five-event performance in Beijing.
“I’m qualified for all five events and hoping that my body holds up for all five events,” said Umstead, who was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010. “I’m just going to have to see how the schedule works out and play it that way.”
Rob delivered the news that Umstead was voted by her peers as a flag bearer for Team USA, along with fellow Para Alpine racer Tyler Carter. She’s one of three women on the 18-person U.S. Paralympic Alpine team along with 25-year-old Chicagoan Allie Johnson and 37-year-old Massachusetts native Laurie Stephens, who will compete in the women’s standing and sitting classes, respectively.
“I was completely surprised,” said Umstead, who also shared a little insight into what it’s like to compete with her husband as her literal eyes.
“We use headsets in our helmets and he’s telling me when to start my turn, when to move off my feet,” she explained. “He’s counting down jumps, talking about the terrain, and he’s guiding me the whole way. I have very limited vision. I can’t see anything that moves, so I’m relying on his voice and our communications to get me down the hill – and we’re traveling from anywhere from 40 to 70 miles per hour as we’re skiing.
“Everybody says, ‘Well, Danelle, gosh, I don’t see how you do that.’ But Rob has to ski in front of me and has to turn around and make sure our spacing is good and ski fast. I think his job is a lot harder than mine.”