Paralympian Danelle Umstead aims to empower next generation of women to ‘master their impossible’

Danielle Umstead of the United States competes in the Women's Visually Impaired Slalom.
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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.”

“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.”

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Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.


How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.


Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.


More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.