Do we really need sight if we have vision?
Staci Mannella is a sophomore at Dartmouth, she’s a D1 varsity athlete on the school’s equestrian team, and she’s a world-class skier. The 19-year-old New Jersey native has the pliable world in her hands, and a future so bright that she needs specially made contact lenses to function in her daily life.
Mannella is visually impaired, but that’s not a label she’s interested in people remembering. Born with a genetic condition called achromatopsia, the cones in Mannella’s eyes don’t work. She has limited color vision, and low visual acuity, but the biggest obstacle is her inability to filter light, which means that she can only see three-feet in front of her.
“To help with that, I wear tinted black contacts,” Mannella said. “I also wear ski goggles that are made with window tint — the kind of window tint that’s illegal on your car. We put three layers of that tint inside my goggles to filter out the sunlight that reflects off the snow while I’m skiing.”
That’s how Mannella, the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic Alpine Ski Team, works her magic on and off snow.
A long-term goal discovered
Like many great skiers, Mannella started young. At 4, her parents put her and her two siblings on skis because they wanted to keep the whole family active.
The long trips to Windham Mountain in upstate New York paid off. Mannella started skiing with two guides, who held a bamboo pole between them, to keep her upright. She progressed quickly and with the encouragement of her instructors, she joined the Adaptive Sports Foundation’s race team. By 11, she competed in her first alpine skiing national championship.
“I don’t think my parents had intentions of me getting any better than just being able to hang out with the family on the mountain. I kind of exceeded expectations a little bit,” Mannella joked.
By 12 years old, a trip to Breckenridge, Colorado enhanced her perspective. At the Hartford Ski Spectacular, Mannella met members of the U.S. Paralympic Alpine Ski Team and decided right then and there that she wanted to make the team and compete in Sochi at the 2014 Games.
For most skiers and snowboarders, foggy goggles are a reason to slam on the brakes. For Mannella, flying down uneven terrain at high speeds without being able to see is all she knows.
“It’s hard for me to even think that this is a hard way to do it because this is how I’ve been skiing my entire life,” Mannella said.
One of the most critical components to Mannella’s success is her guide of six years, Kim Seevers, who speaks to her through an ear mic.
“The most important part of what I do is being able to trust the person that I’m skiing behind,” Mannella said. “I need to trust this person that they’re going to give me the right cues and tell me what they need to tell me so they can get me down the hill safely.”
Seevers skis in front of Mannella, relaying very pertinent information back to her.
“If you hear us skiing, I know exactly what she’s thinking and vice versa,” Mannella said of Seevers. “It’s really crazy how well we know each other. She can say the smallest thing, and to anyone else, it means nothing. To me, I know exactly what she means.”
Outside of competition, Mannella skis behind her friends, who will tell her if any large obstacles or changes in pitch are coming her way. The rest is about feeling the mountain under her sticks and in her bones.
Her first Games
In the years that Mannella trained and skied with Seevers, the pair became a force. Mannella took home a gold medal at the World Cup as well as numerous championship titles. In 2013, those accomplishments finally earned her a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Alpine Ski Team, where at 18, she became the youngest member of the team.
Mannella spent one-third of her life training for Sochi, so when she walked into the stadium for the opening ceremonies, she soaked in every bit of the 80,000+ crowd roar.
During competition, Mannella put four solid runs together, which earned her two sixth-place finishes.
“I was relatively happy with how I skied,” Mannella said. “Considering the pressure of that race, I was happy with my finishes. I’m glad I got to experience it so young. I didn’t really have expectations going in, but I think I did pretty well.”
Opening minds, smashing perceptions
From her guide dog, Smidge ( a lab-golden mix), to horses, animals have always been a big part of Mannella’s life.
Before she really buckles down to prep for the 2018 PyeongChang Paralympic Games in South Korea, Mannella will continue taking pre-veterinary classes at Dartmouth, and riding for the school. She hopes to major in biology with a minor in ethics.
Outside of school and the corral, she will carry forward with what is perhaps her greatest purpose in life right now.
“I like to think my experiences promote diversity and kind of help open people’s minds,” Mannella said. “I think when you see someone with a guide dog or you see someone with a disability, you automatically think limitation. When people first meet me, they don’t think I’m a Paralympic skier or a D1 varsity athlete. Once I talk to them and share my story a little, it really opens their mind.”
For the people on the ski hill who continue to tell Mannella “Good for you for getting out there,” she refrains from saying, “I think we’re past that at this point.”
Proof that you can’t always believe what your eyes are telling you.
If you’d like to donate money so that Staci can see South Korea in 2018, go here.