For any marriage, trust is important.
For a marriage like Danelle and Rob Umstead’s, it is absolutely critical.
Rob acts as an alpine skiing guide for Danelle, who is visually impaired. The two train together full-time and are headed to their second straight Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, March 6-17.
Fittingly, Danelle and Rob first met après-ski in Taos, New Mexico, in 2005.
Within a year of meeting, they moved Park City, Utah, to start a life together. After the relocation, Danelle struggled to find a consistent guide.
That is, until her husband stepped up.
Rob, a former race coach who skied collegiately for the University of Massachusetts, left his job in 2008 to train with Danelle full-time.
The two haven’t looked back since.
“My background in the sport of ski racing and coaching helped me transition into being a confident guide, and I think it also helped her to trust me,” Rob said. “Racing as a team puts a whole new twist on what is usually an individual sport. Our success is directly related to us working together. If only one of us has a good race, then we do not have success.”
At the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Danelle and Rob earned bronze. But their motto, “Vision4Gold,” is a clear indication of their goals for Sochi.
Following the International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing World Cup Final in Tarvisio, Italy, this month, Danelle was crowned the 2013-14 overall world cup champion for the women’s visually impaired classification as well as the overall winner for slalom and speed events.
Having been full-time racing partners for six years and a married couple for eight, Danelle and Rob are certainly a well-oiled machine. Still, Danelle will be the first to admit it’s not easy work.
“For Rob and I, the communication and trust has been a work in progress,” Danelle said. “Just because he is my husband doesn’t mean that it initially made things easier. We have to constantly work towards maintaining our good communication.”
On the mountain, that means Rob skiing in front of Danelle and speaking commands to her through a headset. He must let her know when and how sharply to turn, indicate changes in terrain, and coach her through difficult sections of the course when needed.
The two carefully examine the course ahead of time, memorizing it as thoroughly as possible.
“During the race I am trying to execute the plan we came up with during inspection. This allows her to figure out where she is on the course and anticipate what is coming up,” Rob said. “Hopefully it leads to proactive skiing rather than reactive.”
Danelle doesn’t mind if Rob keeps some information to himself, though.
“I do not like when he tells me the fog is really bad and he cannot see,” Danelle said. “That’s not a very comforting statement for me. One of us needs to see!”
But while the goal is gold, keeping Danelle safe is Rob’s top priority.
“The jump in the Sochi downhill is an intimidating obstacle, and Danelle knows I am going to put her safety first and foremost,” Rob said. “But Danelle’s confidence in me gives us an edge that other teams do not have.”
Or, as Danelle says, “He has a vested interest in me.”
It helps that the couple shares a life and common values off the slopes, too. They have a 6-year-old son, Brocton – and through their racing, they hope to show him what it means to never give up.
That persevering spirit has become especially important to the Umsteads in recent years. In addition to the retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration causing Danelle’s gradual loss of vision, she was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis shortly before the 2010 Games. Now, Danelle is up against both blindness and an autoimmune disease that affects her brain and central nervous system.
But the Umsteads haven’t let that additional hurdle keep them from chasing their dreams.
“I love that we work together towards a common goal,” Danelle said. “We spend all of our time together, and I feel lucky to be able to share my life and career with my best friend and soul mate. We travel the world and train at an elite level, and at the same time share our lives with love and respect. The ups and down are as one – a united front, a family affair, a ‘Vision4Gold.’”
In Sochi, Danelle and Rob will race in all five alpine skiing events – downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom and super combined.
The 2014 Paralympic Winter Games are set to receive an unprecedented 52 hours of television coverage on NBC and NBCSN. Danelle and Rob’s downhill, super-G and giant slalom events will be broadcast live, and all competition throughout the Games will be live streamed on TeamUSA.org.