Mannella and Trygstad-Saari lead Big Green in the Paralympics
While Dartmouth students were on spring break, Olympic action continued as the Paralympics Games ran from March 9 through 18 in Pyeongchang, South Korea. By the end, Team USA’s 74 athletes took home 36 medals, the most of any nation competing. Two of the Team USA’s competitors were Staci Mannella ’18 and Kristina Trygstad-Saari ’07.
Mannella is an alpine skier hailing from Randolph, New Jersey who was born with achromatopsia, which affects her color vision, light sensitivity and general eyesight. Today her vision stands at 20-400 and 20-600 in her left and right eyes, respectively; she wears tinted contacts and additional goggles while skiing to limit the amount of light reaching her eyes.
Mannella started skiing at a young age and began her racing career in fifth grade, skiing her way to Team USA’s development roster in 2011. Mannell’s first World Cup start came in New Zealand in 2013. She competed at the Paralympics in Sochi in 2014, placing sixth in the slalom and giant slalom. At the 2017 World Cup, Mannella took home bronze in the super combined and claimed fifth in the super-G.
Mannella has a close relationship with her guide Sadie DeBaun. DeBaun began working as a guide after Danelle Umstead, a three-time visually impaired Paralympian in alpine skiing, moved in next door to her in Park City, Utah and invited DeBaun to be her guide.
“I looked it up and thought it was pretty cool and could see myself doing something like that or this, and that’s kind of how it started,” DeBaun said.
After just three years, DeBaun and Mannella described themselves as being like sisters.
“We just have a lot of fun together, so our relationship is really good, and I think that’s really important with the guide and athlete,” DeBaun said.
When skiing together, DeBaun remains close to Mannella. Both have Bluetooth headsets in their helmets for easy communication. They have been training together since last May, hitting the slopes at Mannella’s home mountain in addition to attending training camps.
“We definitely have a sister relationship, and we have kind of been travelling the world together for the past three years,” Mannella said.
At 21 and 19 years old respectively, Mannella and DeBaun are the US alpine ski team’s youngest members. At the conclusion of the 2017 season, they stood in the top 10 rankings for all alpine disciplines in the world.
However, the road to Pyeongchang was no easy journey. A hundred days before the Games began, Mannella injured her medial collateral ligament in her left knee. Fortunately, she was able to take two terms off from Dartmouth to prepare for this year’s competition, in contrast to when she was a full-time high school student during the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Games.
“Unfortunately, I was battling a lot of injuries in the middle of the year, and so I didn’t get quite as much training as I wanted to,” she said. “But there’s definitely a lot more dedication and time put into it because I didn’t have to juggle school at the same time.”
Their hard work resulted in three top 10 finishes in the Paralympics. Mannella placed ninth in the slalom and 10th in both the giant slalom and super-G; they did not finish in the super combined.
Off of the slopes, Mannella is a member of the Dartmouth equestrian team and is studying anthropology and biology. After months of training, she will be taking time off from skiing to focus on school and is looking forward to seeing her friends again.
“There’s a different intellectual stimulation that you get going to school and taking classes as opposed to being a professional athlete, so I’m looking forward to getting back to that as well,” Mannella said.
One of her close friends, Arielle Isaacson ’18, describes Mannella as passionate and driven.
“She’s very focused on whatever she’s currently doing,” Isaacson said. “She has reasons on why she does everything. She’s not just aimlessly driven. She very much cares about setting and achieving goals.”
Trygstad-Saari, another Dartmouth alumna, guides Mia Zutter, an 18-year-old skier with Stargardt disease, a genetic degenerative eye condition that limits her sight to outer vision. Trygstad-Saari, who competes in the biathlon and cross country skiing, was a member of the Dartmouth Nordic ski team and earned a spot on the First Team All-East. She also received the Spirit of Skiing Award in 2006 in honor of her leadership.
“[Zutter] and I consider ourselves a team, but I’m out there to support Mia and give her whatever she needs on the course,” Trygstad-Saari said in an interview with Team USA. “We try to communicate, mostly that means me reaching out to her.”
Similar to Mannella and DeBaun, Trygstad-Saari and Zutter have a tight-knit relationship.
“There’s definitely a lot of trust in that relationship, especially when we’re flying down some big hills,” Zutter said in the same interview with Team USA. “[I am] grateful to work with her and we have a great connection.” .
Zutter placed eighth in the 15-kilometer free, ninth in the 7.5-kilometer classic and ninth in the 1.5-kilometer sprint classic. Additionally, the four-member U.S. team finished last in the 4x2.5-kilometer open relay.