Danelle Umstead is a ski racer.
Danelle Umstead is blind.
Danelle Umstead has Multiple Sclerosis.
These three facts pose an unlikely juxtaposition, but one that is familiar to many Paralympic athletes. With enough grit, the impossible is possible. Placing complete faith and trust in her husband, Rob, Danelle follows him down the racecourse around the gates. Rob dons a headset and fires off directions, helping her anticipate every move. Danelle additionally relies on her hearing and feels her way down the mountain, calculating and reacting to the snow’s every nuance to remain on course and nail her transitions.
“Imagine what it’s like to ski down mountains at 70 miles per hour. Now imagine what it's like to do that blind. This is what I do.”
- Danelle Umstead
The sky darkened after filming drone footage atop a mountain peak
When a friend of a friend called me from a New York production agency asking for a ski body double, I signed up despite not having run myself around ski gates in 9 years. Like most outlandish, last-minute freelance (skilance) projects I take on, the actual work involved doesn’t encompass any skills you’d find on a resume.
For this 14-hour shoot I would need the following:
• Feet small enough to jam into Danelle’s ‘race fit’ ski boots (luckily, mine are small).
• The willingness to squeeze into a skintight spandex ski racing suit.
• Looking really, really ridiculously good looking (from the back only).
• How to correctly board a snow cat.
• The wherewithal to stand on a windy mountain peak in jeans for an extended period of time while completely ignoring a drone overhead and acting ‘stoic’ but also blind.
• General knowledge and experience around alpine ski racing.
• To appear as if I were a legitimate alpine ski racer while skiing around gates. At night. In pitch darkness.
• The stamina to wear aforementioned spandex and race fit ski boots from 9PM to 12AM on a frigid and windy night in January.
The Comcast Corporation sponsors Team USA and planned to air a commercial highlighting Danelle’s story in the weeks leading up to the 2018 Paralympic events in Pyeongchang, South Korea. My main role would be to ski in the darkness to simulate what it’s like for Danelle when she’s rocketing down the slope. During the daylight hours, I would serve as a body double for the shot sequence of clicking into the racing skis and the drone footage of Danelle on a mountaintop.
A busy crew and fancy cameras!
Around 8PM after gorging myself on salmon, potatoes, and chocolate cake from craft services (Yum), it was naturally the perfect time to slip into a spandex bodysuit. The crew piled into SUVs and drove to the Utah Olympic Park. The training hill was illuminated by spotlights and floodlights and I was whisked by snowmobile to the race shack at the top of the hill to await my first gate bashing moment in years.
Looking downhill, the sight of illuminated gates and the racecourse
After a few takes, I became accustomed to the course and skiing in and out of the spotlights illuminating each gate. Danelle’s blindness is the result of retinitis pigmentosa, meaning she has no central vision and only fragments of peripheral vision. The spotlights would simulate the flashing of the gate that she sometimes glimpses while speeding down the racecourse. We switched up the camera angles and filmed static shots, slow motion shots, follow cam shots, shots with gimbals, and one take with the videographer dangling precariously off the back of a snowmobile with a couple hundred thousand dollars’ worth of camera equipment. I’d never worked with a crew so large and understanding the complexity of everyone’s role and responsibilities made my head spin. Near the end, I was so thoroughly frozen I had to crack jokes to keep from crying.
Freezing but laughing
In preparation for what the director envisioned would be a dramatic finale to the Comcast commercial, all the floodlights in the facility were switched off. Only the spotlights illuminated the last few gates. He would have me race past the last gates while shutting off each spotlight as I reached the gate. I was breathing hard at the top of the hill, as this would require faster skiing with more precision in near total darkness. The dramatic sound of the spotlight shutting off startled me as I whisked past the first gate. Falling into a rhythm, I was ready for the darkness by the third gate and the heightened sense of drama and adrenaline fueled the old college racer buried deep inside me. The swoosh of my skis, the click of the gate, and the decisive shunting of the spotlight’s beam carried me to the base of the hill.
The spotlights created a dramatic backdrop, simulating Danelle’s incredible feat of skiing without vision.
When a hefty man sporting two layers of Canada Goose down jackets hollered “That’s a wrap!” my body flooded with gratitude. Fuck. These. Boots. I crawled into an idling SUV around the stroke of midnight, jammed the seat heater button to ‘High’ and pried the frozen bear traps off what had once been my feet. I’d been wearing spandex and race fit ski boots in the whipping wind and temperatures of 12 degrees Fahrenheit for the last 3 hours. It was all worth it to tell just a small fragment of Danelle’s inspiring story.
A few short weeks later, all the hard work of the crew came to light as the Comcast commercial featuring Danelle’s bravery, courage, and determination shone on television screens across the nation. It was an honor to suffer through an evening of midnight spandex ski racing to convey a small fraction of the energy and fierce determination that Danelle has invested to get where she is.
It was a delight to meet Danelle between takes, she was such a warm person with an incredible glow and energy about her. I’d recently started volunteering with the Wasatch Adaptive Sports Program, and meeting Danelle showed me what adaptive athletes are capable of. I’m wishing her a very successful stint in South Korea and I can’t wait to follow her story and watch her ski!