Paralympic skier Danelle Umstead finds clarity late in the game
Danelle Umstead is living proof that you should never give up on your dreams.
Despite having so many setbacks in her life, and with people telling her what she would never accomplish, the three-time Paralympian ignored it all and lived life how she chose.
“I think everything happens for a reason and in my heart of hearts, I’ve always believed I would be able to do that,” Umstead, who lives with a severe visual impairment, said. “As a little girl I always wanted to make a difference in world. … It was really important to make a difference and I always believed I could be that person. I just never knew it would play out like this.”
Umstead was told that she would never be able to live her dream of being an athlete when she was diagnosed with inherited retinal disease at the age of 13. But her eye disease, which caused visual impairment made that dream impossible to achieve.
Fast forward to the present and Umstead is now accomplishing everything she ever wanted as a public advocate for those with eye diseases.
“I’m literally living the impossible every single day and now because of who I’ve become, I get to share my adventure with so many and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Umstead said. “Being an advocate for everything means more to me than the medals do – not to say the medals don’t mean anything, though.
“Being a mentor and spokesperson is very empowering for me and I think it’s what helps me get up every day and do what I have to do help others.”
Her journey as an athlete began relatively late for a Paralympian in 2001 age of 29, when her dad introduced her to adaptive skiing while in New Mexico. Umstead never grew up skiing, but once she found the sport, she knew it was what she wanted to do in life.
“I immediately fell in love with skiing, like, instantly,” Umstead said. “Once I found skiing, it was almost as if I found a new meaning in life. It gave me a sense of worth and security that I knew would change my life forever, but in the best of way possible.”
While skiing in New Mexico, she met a man named Rob who would go on to change the outcome of her life.
She jokes that she met him on a “blind” date.
Umstead, 47, was instantly attracted to the sound of his voice, so she asked her friend who she was with what he looked like, and according to Umstead, “the results were very good.”
The two of them later moved to Park City in 2006 when Rob got a job with Park City Ski and Snowboard. The moved proved to be great for Umstead as well, because while looking for a house to rent, the realtor showing them around turned out to sit on the board of the National Ability Center, a local nonprofit that works with adaptive athletes.
“She knew a lot about it and did a great job of selling me on that more than any house,” Umstead said while laughing. “That’s where the dream of being a Paralympian started, when I was at the NAC and began skiing. I started out in the competition program and started ski racing, and the rest is history from there.”
With her dream of representing Team USA just being realized at the age of 34, but unable to find a full-time guide to help her compete on the World Cup level, Rob stepped up by quitting his job at PCSS to train with her full-time in 2008.
Beginning at Vancouver in 2010 – – the same year she would face another hurdle as she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis – Umstead won the bronze medal in downhill and super-combined before taking home bronze again at Sochi in 2014 in super combined. Throughout her career, she also won two silver and two bronze World Cup medals.
“I had to put 150 percent forward because I was competing against athletes much younger so Rob and I spent many hours in the gym and on the slopes,” Umstead said. “We probably had to double of what everyone else did because of how late I got started. … But when they put that medal around my neck, I knew it was all worth it. It was such an honor and a wonderful moment because we succeeded in all our dreams by making the impossible possible.”
Recently, Umstead had the biggest breakthrough of her life when she was able to identify the specific gene that caused her eye diseases. With the support of her teammates over the past year, Umstead got the test done through a sample of saliva, finding out that the gene that caused her IRD did not cause her MS.
“I think that was the most empowering moment for me, ever,” Umstead said of the discovery. “It was Rob who at the end said that we had to figure this out so we once we got the results, it’s still hard to describe the feeling. Now I know what’s going on in my life and I feel like I now have more control.”
She now spends the majority of her time at speaking events and serving as an advocate for those with eye diseases. Her new partnership with gene therapy firm Spark Therapeutics has given Umstead the platform to make even more of an impact.
“Everything I wanted to do as a child, I can now say I’ve done it,” Umstead said. “From being an athlete to helping people, I feel as if I’m just doing my part in this world to make it better for others. … And to do it with the man of my dreams who’s supported me the whole way, I’m very lucky.”
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Dave Hanscom announced last month he was retiring as volunteer race director of the Wasatch Citizens Series after 30 years in the position.