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Danelle Umstead’s Fourth Paralympics Were An Opportunity To Lead By Example

by Bob Reinert

Danelle Umstead competes in the women's giant slalom at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on March 11, 2022 in Yanqing, China.

 

During the recent Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, most 50-year-olds were probably watching the action from their couches at home. Not Danelle Umstead.
Just weeks after marking her own 50th birthday, Umstead instead was hurtling down the slopes in the visually impaired women’s giant slalom and slalom races at the National Alpine Skiing Center in Yanqing, China, with her husband and guide, Rob Umstead, leading the way.
Umstead placed 13th in the giant slalom and failed to finish the slalom. Yet no one could blame her for feeling good about her performances under the circumstances.
“It feels great to be here again,” Umstead said after the giant slalom. “My struggles over the past four years have been real and tough, and this is the first time I’ve been on the international circuit since the last Games due to injury and multiple sclerosis and everything.
“I feel very blessed to be back. It’s not my best skiing out there, but I skied it and I’m pretty proud of myself because sometimes our mental health gets in the way, and today I tried to overcome that part.”
Competing in her fourth Games with Rob, the three-time Paralympic bronze medalist from Park City, Utah, pointed out that it’s been a long and challenging quad.
Coming off the high of competing in her third Paralympic Winter Games and then on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2018, Umstead missed the following season due to a MS relapse. Then a ski crash in February 2020 left her with a broken tibia and fibula.
“It’s been three surgeries and a lot of stress and a lot of pain,” Umstead said. “I feel everything because I can’t see very well. The feeling in my boots, the feeling in my leg, everything I count on was taken away from me and I had to relearn it because I have MS on that side, too. 
“It’s been a constant struggle, but it really feels good to just push out at the start, kind of get my anxiety out of the way a little bit.”
Even after passing the half-century mark, Umstead felt it was important to compete in Beijing. 
“I want to represent all women in general, and representing my team is the most important, Team USA,” Umstead said. “We all have things that stand in our way. It could be our age or ability. It could be anything.
“I just want to show that even though we’re not first on race day, we push through and we’re stronger if we’re all together, so we’re better together.”

Flag bearers Tyler Carter and Danelle Umstead lead Team USA during the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on March 4, 2022 in Beijing.

 

In 2019, Umstead founded the Sisters in Sports Foundation, which provides mentorship and education programs for women and girls with disabilities. The Beijing Games were her opportunity to lead by example.
Knowing that the world was watching the Paralympics, Umstead passed along a message to anyone watching, whether able-bodied or disabled.
“I just want them to see the beauty inside like we see in everybody else,” Umstead said. “We are not just disabled. We are strong women and men. There’s a lot of ups and downs, like everybody else.
“Some Games are the best and some Games are not, and following the Paralympics and the Paralympic Movement, I just want to tell everybody that it’s never too late to start your impossible.”
Umstead, who has retinitis pigmentosa and early onset macular degeneration, skied for the first time at 29 years old. She met Rob, a former University of Massachusetts skier, four years later while skiing in New Mexico. 
They won a pair of bronze medals at Vancouver in 2010 and another at Sochi in 2014. They have also collected four world championship medals.
The Umsteads were the only married couple on this year’s U.S. Paralympic Team, which in turn gave them the distinction of being the rare family that was able to be together during the Games. Rob, 52, spoke about guiding Danelle on the slopes all these years.
“It’s a 24/7 job,” he said. “Being married, it’s good for us to have that relationship, and we think it helps us on the hill and what we do on the hill helps us at home. 
“We’ve been doing it for 12 years now, maybe 13, and it’s still fun and it still helps us. We’re still learning about each other in life and on skis.”
One of the highlights of Danelle’s 2022 Winter Games experience came before any racing.
She and fellow U.S. alpine skier Tyler Carter, a three-time Paralympian, were chosen to be U.S. flag bearers for the 67-member U.S. team in the Opening Ceremony. Rob was part of springing the surprise on his wife.
“I was completely surprised,” said Danelle of her selection by U.S. teammates. “They did a beautiful thing, and they had my husband tell me. Everything I have done, he has been by my side. He is so proud. This is such an honor, and I was completely shocked.” 
Carter, who was retiring after the Games, said he was honored because he was accompanying Umstead.
“Getting to carry the flag alongside Danelle is a huge honor,” Carter said. “I lived with her for a few months when I was young in my career. She mentored me, and we became best friends. 
“To be able to walk alongside her (and) represent our whole country and the team, I can’t think of anyone better to be sharing that moment with.” 


Bob Reinert spent 17 years writing sports for The Boston Globe. He also served as a sports information director at Saint Anselm College and Phillips Exeter Academy. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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