This Is Trust: Paralympian Skier Guided By Husband At 70 MPH

Mar 14, 2014
Originally published on March 14, 2014 6:33 pm
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The Sochi Paralympic Games continue in Russia through Sunday. We've been talking with several of the U.S. athletes competing in the games, and today we're joined by a husband and wife team, who just won a bronze medal in Alpine skiing in super-combined.

ROB UMSTEAD: We've been married for six years, coming up on seven in April, no, coming up on six in April.


ROB UMSTEAD: We've been married for almost six years this April, and...

DANELLE UMSTEAD: Oh, you're digging yourself a hole, honey.

BLOCK: That's Danelle and Rob Umstead. Danelle is visually impaired. She has retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration. Husband Rob is her guide. He skis a short way ahead of her and gives her verbal commands through the course. Keep in mind they're going at speeds of up to 70 miles an hour.

DANELLE UMSTEAD: Rob guides me through headsets, and it's like an open line of communication, and he is telling me what's happening underfoot, and hopefully I can - we can be close enough where I can pick up some bright orange vest that he wears, but it's mostly by communication and trust.

BLOCK: So I gather you have some limited sight, Danelle? How much can you see?

DANELLE UMSTEAD: I have no central vision and no peripheral vision. So I have a little bit of vision in between the two, three to five feet depending on the lighting, and there's nothing detailed whatsoever.

BLOCK: And Rob, what kinds of commands are you giving through that headset to Danelle?

ROB UMSTEAD: Well, I tell her where I'm starting my turn and try to tell her where I'm finishing my turn, as well, and then really describing the terrain of the hill. Today we use kind of points of a clock reference. So we said OK, we're going to start this turn at 10:30, and we're going to stay with the ski all the way to 2 o'clock and then move to a flat ski and go off the bump. And that was what we did.

And so I try to count down that bump for her, at least to tell her when I was going off the jump itself, so she'd know or have a rough idea of when she's going to be leaving the ground.

BLOCK: And Danelle, as you're picking up Rob's commands in your ear, can you give me some examples of things you hear him say and what you're hearing exactly?

DANELLE UMSTEAD: Pretty much exactly what he's saying, just in smaller fractions of words. He's usually saying like: coming in at 12 o'clock, flat ski, just not full sentences. And then stay forward. If it's a little bumpy, he'll give me a pre-warning, you know, when he hits the bumps that it's going to be a little bumpy here, stay in the front of your boot. So he's constantly talking to me.

I usually say it's like him reading a book to me, and I'm just following directions.

BLOCK: Do you also have code words that you use that wouldn't mean anything to anybody else, but you've worked out some lingo?

ROB UMSTEAD: Absolutely. You know, we kind of have a vocabulary of, oh, probably only 15, 20 words that we try to stick to. The more we can be specific and keep things simple, the better. I actually about a year ago had a chance to be guided by someone else, and as soon as they got outside the norm, I was confused, so...

BLOCK: Oh, you mean you tried to be on the receiving end. In other words, did you blindfold yourself so that you could see what that experience was like?

ROB UMSTEAD: Yeah, I did, and I had someone guide me with a blindfold, and it's a whole different perspective on what we're doing, for me.


BLOCK: Yeah, what was that like?

ROB UMSTEAD: It was interesting. I mean, everything seems to be happening a lot quicker. You're not really sure when you're moving. The hill seems steeper. You feel like you've gone a long way, and you haven't really gone anywhere. So it's a whole different world on the back end of this train that we run down the mountain.

BLOCK: Do you think there's an advantage to you being husband and wife in terms of how you communicate; sort of instinctively what you might know about each other?

ROB UMSTEAD: Yeah, I think we always say that, you know, when things get really tough, you know, our bond as husband and wife really kind of gives us an edge over the rest of the competition.

DANELLE UMSTEAD: I absolutely agree with him. I think that the communication and trust we've learned in sport has even reflected in our personal lives.

BLOCK: You know, I was reading about some of the equipment malfunctions in those headsets at Sochi with teams that couldn't hear each other, which has to be terrifying.

DANELLE UMSTEAD: Absolutely. We have been lucky enough to not have that type of situation happen to us, knock on wood. I've had a little bit of screeching towards the end, but it was nothing enough to take away my hearing from focusing on Rob because if that happened, Rob and I would have to pull out.

BLOCK: Danelle, I understand that along with the visual impairment, you also have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Is that right?

DANELLE UMSTEAD: Yeah, unfortunately in 2010 in October, I woke up paralyzed from the upper ribcage all the way down to my foot. And so I had to learn how to walk again, learn how to ski again and learn how to do everything again on my right side. So it's been a struggle, but I've learned to live with MS, and I'm learning how my body works, and I'm finding positive things from it, even though it's something that I have to live with every day.

BLOCK: Well, you've got one event to go there in Sochi, the giant slalom coming up this weekend. Best of luck in that, and thanks for talking with us.

DANELLE UMSTEAD: Thank you so much.

ROB UMSTEAD: Thanks a lot for having us on.

BLOCK: That's Rob and Danelle Umstead. Today the husband and wife U.S. team won bronze in the visually impaired super-combined in the Sochi Olympics.



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