Dogs

Paralympian Danelle Umstead Reveals Guide Dog Aziza Is Force Behind Her Success


Danelle is a visually impaired alpine skier from Park City, Utah, and three-time Paralympic Bronze medalist who competed in the 2018 Paralympic Games that started on March 9. She travels to competitions with her guide dog, Aziza, and races with her husband Rob as her sighted guide in the women’s slalom, giant slalom, downhill and super-combined.

When I was 13 years old, it was an awkward and difficult time in life simply due to the fact that I was in my early teens. However, that very year, my self-worth and confidence took a big turn downward when I was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a genetic disease causing a gradual decline in my vision. Imagine being such a young age and being told you will someday lose your vision completely.

I struggled a lot with my diagnosis, and was challenged with many other obstacles and setbacks as I grew older. Aside from my vision, I suffered from other heartbreaking losses through the years.

And then when I was 29 years old my dad invited me to ski with him. At first, I thought he was crazy – didn’t he know I had lost a large part of my vision? But I decided to throw caution to the wind and give it a shot. After all, I didn’t have much to lose. My dad guided me down the mountain, and for the first time in a long time I felt alive! Skiing gave me a renewed passion for life that I didn’t think I would ever find again. At that moment, I realized that I can achieve anything, I just need to go about it a little differently than most because of my visual impairment. Now, my husband Rob is my guide and incredible partner.

To be able to compete on the world’s stage in the 2018 Paralympics is truly a dream come true, especially with my whole family there cheering me on.

To make this achievement possible, I’m relying on Rob to guide me down the mountain and my guide dog, Aziza, to walk me down the street. The trust that I have in Aziza is on a whole different level and it certainly doesn’t come overnight. It is something that we’ve learned together and trained and experienced as a team.

Aziza has guided me all over the world. I couldn’t be where I am today without her. I feed her Natural Balance, a dog food that I can buy with confidence, and one of my sponsors for the 2018 Paralympic Games. During training and at my races, Aziza stays in the lodge of the mountain waiting for Rob and me to return. No matter how we do in competition, Aziza is happy to see us and give kisses.

Before I had a guide dog, I felt very isolated, and that made me sad because naturally I’m very social and I love interacting with people. I was using a cane and felt very nervous crossing the street and avoiding obstacles. I also noticed that people felt uncomfortable approaching me. As soon as I worked with my first guide dog, people started offering their help and asking about my dog. I suddenly turned back into the social butterfly I love to be.

Aziza is an amazing guide dog. She provides my eyes. She has a bigger job than Rob when he guides me on the mountain. Thanks to her training with Guide Dogs for the Blind, she makes sure I don’t fall in everyday life and I get where I’m going safely. At home in Park City, I will say, “find the gym” or “find the coffee shop” and she’ll get me there. When we are in big cities, Aziza is highly aware of our surroundings. Every hotel that we stay in is different and Aziza is trained to maneuver around from checking in to getting to my room. I am so thankful for Aziza.

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Once Aziza’s harness is off and she’s officially “off duty,” she is playful and has a ton of energy – she loves her toys and loves to snuggle. But even when she’s out of the harness, she is always watching me to make sure I am okay. She truly loves her job.

I feel alive and free knowing that I am doing the impossible every day. I’m so honored to represent the United States at the Paralympics this year. I just want to make our country proud.

Visit my Instagram to watch more of my journey with Aziza.



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