Update: Danelle Umstead and her partner, Artem Chigvintsev, were eliminated from the “Dancing with the Stars” competition in Tuesday’s episode.
When Park City’s Danelle Umstead got an email asking her to be a contestant on the current season of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” she thought it was somebody’s idea of a joke.
“Not gonna lie — I thought I was getting punked in some way,” she said. “I was, like, 'Are you kidding me? Is this really real?'”
And Umstead had plenty of reason for skepticism. For one thing, she has zero dancing experience. For another — she's blind.
“In 2007, I said out loud that I wanted to be the first blind contestant on 'Dancing with the Stars,'” she said in a phone interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “But when the email came, I asked myself, 'Do I really want to do this?' And I definitely did.”
Umstead was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa — a genetic eye condition that causes the retina to degenerate — when she was just 13. She has no central vision and is losing her peripheral vision. Currently, her spotted vision limits her sight to less than 5 feet, without any detail.
But she's a three-time medalist at the Paralympics. And she left the “Dancing” judges sounding amazed after her performance, with partner Artem Chigvintsev, last week.
(Umstead memorizes the steps and performs using her sense of touch with her partner.)
“What you did was spectacular,” said judge Carrie Ann Inaba. “The way you moved through uncertainty and the trust — I think we can all feel the bond between you and Artem, which was so magical. You moved as one body.”
But Umstead said what she's learned so far has been how little she knew.
“I thought I could move a little. No, no — it's all wrong,” she said with a laugh.
That Umstead is surprising people on the dance floor is an echo of her career on the slopes. She didn’t learn to ski until she was 29. Her dreams of the Paralympics didn’t begin until four years later (in 2005), when she and her husband moved to Park City and she learned of the competition program at the National Ability Center there.
“I said, ‘I want to be a ski racer. I want to be a Paralympian,’” Umstead said — and she was met with a good deal of skepticism. “No one at the National Ability Center said this, but people around me in the skiing world, said, ‘Mmm, you’re coming into this really late. You’re too old. You just learned how to ski. This is pretty impossible.’
“And I didn't listen. I said, 'I'm just going to work that much harder. I'm going to push myself that much more. And I'm going to get out there and do what I can do to follow this dream.'”
A dream that led her to three consecutive Paralympics (2010, 2014 and 2018) and three bronze medals, along with multiple silver and bronze medals at the World Championships.
“And then coming into ['Dancing with the Stars'], I know everybody's talking about my visual challenge, but I also have a physical, neuro challenge, which is multiple sclerosis,” Umstead said.
“This is super hard. And even I, at times, am doubting myself. I didn't realize how big of a challenge it is until I started learning what dancing is all about. Because a blind or visually impaired person, at least this one, has never actually seen the full detail to it, and there's a lot of visual detail to dancing.”
Still, she vowed to “push myself as hard as I can to put my best dance out there each and every week, and hope that America is inspired by that and votes for me. We’re going to need everybody’s support, because I am the underdog in that area, too.”
(She'll find out on Monday — 7 p.m., ABC/Channel 4 — whether she got enough viewer votes to continue for another week.)
Umstead said she hopes she can be an inspiration to people with disabilities and “just people in general.”
“We all have rough days. We all have hard times. We all want to give up on something. I hope I’m inspiring people to just be happy and make each day their very best day. That’s all we can do in life.
“And I’m inspiring myself, because this really seems impossible."