The secret force behind Paralympic skier Danelle Umstead: her incredible guide dogs
When 46-year-old Danelle Umstead flies down the mountain on skis, often racing so fast that fear takes her breath away, her husband, Rob, skis just in front of her, giving her cues about the mountain ahead. Danelle has retinitis pigmentosa and has very limited sight, so she relies on Rob to be her eyes.
She says it's as scary as it sounds.
The three-time Paralympic medalist will compete in her third Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this week, with Rob on the course and her beloved guide dogs, Bettylynn and Aziza, accompanying her every other step of the way as the unofficial MVPs of her training and daily schedule. Both have improved her life in ways that she could only imagine a decade ago, and they have become integral members of her family.
Umstead used to use a cane to get around, but when she gave birth to her son, Brocton, in 2008, she knew she couldn't do it alone anymore.
"When it was just me, and just my own life, I was more apt to say, 'I'll just take that step into the road,' " says Umstead. "But when my newborn son was on my back, it made me realize I needed some help. I didn't trust my own judgment with just my cane and determining if it was safe to cross the street and things like that."
So, after training for a month together at the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus in San Rafael, California, Umstead was paired with Bettylynn, a black labrador retriever. Once they returned home together to Park City, Utah, she could instantly recognize the difference in her life.
"It's truly amazing to be able to go anywhere I want to on my own and have that independence," she says. "The cane is not as inviting. I called it 'Jaws,' because people would immediately step to the side and get out of the way. Now with a dog, I get stopped all the time and everyone wants to ask a question. I'm a social butterfly so it's great -- she allows me to be who I actually am."
In 2010, Umstead, then 38, qualified for her first Paralympics as a member of the U.S. ski team. Bettylynn was right by her side in Vancouver, and even became the first guide dog to represent Team USA at the Paralympics. Competing in all five of the alpine skiing events, Umstead won bronze in both the downhill and super-combined with Rob guiding her.
Umstead says she gets nervous before every race, but once the adrenaline kicks in, she enjoys it. In fact, she fell in love with the sport instantly on her very first run in 2000 because of the overwhelming sense of freedom and exhilaration she felt with every twist and turn. Throughout each race, her guide skis in front of her and speaks to her through a headset.
"[We're] communicating at high speeds about the terrain changes -- pitch, flats, side hill, jumps -- when to start my turns, when to get into a tuck," she says. "It's nonstop communication on what I will feel underfoot. We are not [physically] connected in any way, he guides me through teamwork, trust and verbal communication."
While Rob was in front of her going down the mountain, Bettylynn was waiting for her at the bottom after every race in Vancouver. She retired from her guide dog duties in 2013 but is still a part of the family and continues to keep a vigilant eye on Brocton, now 9, at all times. Umstead then was paired up with her current guide dog, Aziza, a golden labrador retriever. Upon their first solo walk together, Umstead took her outside and they encountered an angry moose not far from their house. The pair successfully ran home together and have been bonded ever since.
Aziza became the second guide dog to represent Team USA at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. She also was the team's unofficial mascot and therapy dog after a slew of injuries sidelined many of Umstead's teammates.
"The conditions on the mountain made it kind of scary in Sochi," says Umstead. "Five of my teammates went out in one race in a helicopter. They were all OK in the end, but some were more serious than others.
"Once they got back to the team housing, [Aziza] was the therapy dog for all five of them. I would let her loose and she would go visit all of them. She ended up being the whole team's dog and provided emotional support."
Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, Umstead took home another bronze medal in the super-combined event. She wasn't thrilled with her performance in any of the events, due mainly to the constantly deteriorating snow, but she was just happy to come out unscathed and to still win a medal.
Four years later, Umstead has been training in the gym for more than three hours every day in the lead-up to this Paralympics. She spent time in Pyeongchang last spring and was impressed with the conditions. This time around, she would like to win a gold medal to add to her trio of bronzes. "My team is called 'Vision 4 Gold,' not bronze, after all," she laughs.
However, at the end of the day, she knows her family will be proud of her no matter what, and she just wants to feel like she gave every event her absolute best effort. And, Aziza will be thrilled to see her when she comes down the mountain regardless of the outcome.
"She's there waiting when I get to the bottom after every race," Umstead says. "She's there waiting, no matter if I had a good race or a bad race. She doesn't care -- she's just here to love me and just be happy to see me no matter what the outcome.
"Not every race results in a bronze medal. Everyone always talks about what they've won, but there are a lot of losses in there as well. [Aziza] has the same happy reaction every time."