As a well-decorated Paralympian, alpine skier and NAC alum, Danelle Umstead is no stranger to overcoming the odds in competition. Her latest challenge, however, doesn't involve clipping into skis and zooming down a race course. This time around, Umstead is taking a break from her boots and trying her hand at dancing as a contestant on the new season of ABC's hit show "Dancing with the Stars," premiering Monday, September 24th.
At the age of 13, Danelle Umstead was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition where the retina progressively degenerates and eventually causes blindness. Sixteen years later, Umstead's life changed completely again-- but for the better-- when her father first introduced her to skiing in 2000. She immediately fell in love the sport. Not only did skiing ignite a new passion for life, it also lead Umstead to her husband Rob (who serves as her guide in competitions) while skiing in New Mexico. A few years after she started skiing, Umstead ended up in Utah at the National Ability Center. "My dream to become a Paralympian started in 2005 when I moved to Park City and was training with the NAC," says Umstead. "People told me they thought this was impossible. They said I was too old and I just learned how to ski. No way I could become a Paralympian. It was enough to push me, to prove them wrong." And she did. Umstead began training full-time with the NAC, working harder than everyone else. Today, she's a three-time Paralympian and three-time bronze medalist.
Umstead will be the first visually impaired contestant to ever compete on "Dancing with the Stars." Now in her mid-40s, she has no central vision and is losing her peripheral vision, limiting her sight to less than five feet without any detail. For Umstead, who has no experience dancing, her vision adds an extra level of challenge for both her and her dancing partner/instructor Artem Chingvinstev. "I truly believe my visual impairment delays my learning. I cannot be taught visually. It is all by words and feel," says Umstead. "It takes a lot longer to get each move. Not only does my vision impact my learning how to dance, I also have multiple sclerosis, which impacts my brain function and body movement." Fatigue also adds to the challenges she faces. In place of showing movement, Chingvinstev and Umstead are developing a unique way of communicating dance steps, using primarily verbal explanations of how the moves should look.
Despite the hurdles, Umstead is thrilled to be a part of the show and competing. "I know it seems impossible, but I'm up for the challenge of living my impossible everyday," says Umstead. "We truly are the underdog in this competition and #TeamBlindFaith is going to dance our best dance and hope America believes in us too. Our competition is fierce and they have more influence in the social media and voting world. Fingers crossed I can inspire others to live their impossible and they'll want to see me do the same thing on Dancing with the Stars."
Regardless of how the competition goes, one thing is sure: we'll be cheering for Umstead from Park City!