Tears fell from Danelle Umstead’s eyes as the bronze medal in downhill skiing was draped around her neck during the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games. She stretched her arms above her head in triumph, clutching her husband Rob’s hand with her right hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other.
“We went out on stage, 5,000 people were cheering and screaming for you,” Danelle said. “It’s an experience you can never get anywhere else. It’s just like, ‘wow.’”
Vancouver was the first Paralympic Games in which the Umsteads competed, taking home a bronze medal in downhill skiing and super combined skiing. Working as a team, Danelle and Rob skied down the mountain reaching speeds up to 60 mph.
This despite the fact Danelle is visually impaired.
At age 13, she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. Today, she only can see up to five feet in front of her, contrasting colors without any level of detail.
Rob guides her down the hill using motorcycle headsets to stay in complete communication down the mountain. He lets her know what is coming up and when to start and release turns.
“It’s just like talking on the phone—I can interrupt him and he can interrupt me,” Danelle said. “It’s like he is reading a book to me about how to get down the mountain. He is my eyes on the mountain.”
Danelle started skiing after her dad introduced her to the sport. He signed up for a class that taught him how to guide Danelle down the mountain. Immediately she fell in love with the sport. Starting with one of the people she trusted the most helped calm her nerves.
She skied with her dad for a couple years before moving away from home and closer to the mountains. She would use people at the resort to help guide her down the mountain. It was there she met Rob.
Rob and Danelle married before he became her guide. He has been Danelle’s eyes since 2008. Working as a ski coach, he had watched her rotate through guides. Some were good, some not so good.
“It was hard finding someone consistent to get her to the national competing level,” Rob said.
After making it to the national level, she knew exactly what her next goal was: the Paralympic Games.
“We thought about possible guides and kept coming back to me,” Rob said. “We really had to think it through financially, losing my income as a coach and doubling the travelling expenses and the equipment.”
The couple decided to give it a shot—a decision that paid off less than two years later when they accepted the bronze medals.
“When I look back, it was such a tough decision then, but now it’s a no-brainer,” Rob said. “You just have to keep an eye on the dollars and cents.”
Together, they made it to the Vancouver Olympic Games and shot to the top ranks this season.
In Vancouver, Danelle and Rob wanted to skip the downhill skiing ceremony and hit the snow again to prepare for two more races in which they still had to compete. The Team USA staff changed their minds.
“Me and Rob were both thinking it was just another award ceremony, just not even knowing and being very naïve,” Danelle said. “We just wanted to make sure we were ready for the next day’s event.”
Danelle found she couldn’t hold her emotions back as they put the bronze medal around her neck.
“Not only were tears falling from my neck because they said we made our country proud, but the medal was so heavy my head just dropped,” Danelle said. “And I thought this isn’t just another medal ceremony for sure.”
BSU at the Games is a freelance news agency operated by 22 student journalists reporting from the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games through an immersive-learning program at Ball State University.