Q&A with Staci Mannella '18

by Alyssa Mehra | 9/21/16 12:02am


Staci Mannella ’18 is one of the youngest members of the United States Paralympian Alpine National team. Mannella placed sixth at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 and has been skiing since the age of four despite having been born with achromatopsia, a genetic visual acuity to three feet. At Dartmouth, Mannella is a member of the equestrian team, which won the Ivy League Championship in April. At the Ivy Championship, Mannella took first in the Intermediate Fences, fourth in the Open Fences Championship and sixth in Novice Flat. She sat down with Alyssa Mehra ’19 to discuss Olympic glory, balancing multiple winning teams and her plans for the future.

How did you get started skiing?

SM: I am legally blind. I have been skiing my entire life since I was four. I started competitively skiing when I was 12, and then it kind of escalated. My coaches caught the eyes of the national team coaches when I was younger. They took me under their wing, and then I set a goal for myself to make the 2014 team. So I competed when I was a senior in high school. It was a pretty interesting experience because I was so young and I was so new to the whole Paralympic thing. It was really interesting because of how political it was. You read about the political stuff in high school history, but I hadn’t traveled enough to realize that that was a real thing. I think while we were in Russia they were also moving into the Ukraine. The Paralympics as a whole are just really cool because everyone has a common goal. I feel like it’s one of the only things left where we’re all on the same page. I was really young as an athlete and that was really good for me to get one under my belt.

What do you have planned for the future?

SM: The plan is to ski in Korea in 2018. I took a year off, and my freshman year here I didn’t ski. Then I thought it sounded like a good idea, so I went back to it last year and skiied some world cups. This year, I’ll ski some world championships and then the Paralympics next year. I take off in the winter, and then our senior year I’ll be off in winter.

How does being a varsity athlete compare to your experience training for the Olympics?

SM: I also ride for the equestrian team here. It’s a much different mindset. It’s a very difficult balance because I’m pre-med, too. When I’m skiing, that’s my job. I’m a professional athlete. Every day I wake up, I train in the gym and my job is to be the best athlete that I can be. And when I’m here, it’s a little more difficult for me to balance because when do I draw the line? Sometimes I think, “Oh I should probably be studying for my organic chemistry final, but I didn’t do a workout today,” that kind of thing. So it’s definitely a little more difficult to balance when I’m in school.

How do you decide when to prioritize being a student versus an athlete?

SM: Depends how well I’m doing in class. I think there is definitely a mental health part of that. I need to be like, “I’m going to be much more human today if I go to the gym for an hour instead of just studying,” and, “How much better am I really do on this orgo final if I spend this hour studying or if I go and get my heart rate up and lift some weights and be an athlete?” This term I’m much more scheduled. I have four scheduled lifts every week. That’s much better for me because it’s not really an option for me, and I have to go.

Why do you think the Paralympics should get more coverage?

SM: We’re one of the only countries that doesn’t televise the Paralympics. In most countries in Europe, the Paralympians are just as well known as the Olympians. To me, every single Paralympian you look into has such a great story and has overcome so many things in their lives ­­— not that Olympians haven’t. Having interacted with so many Paralympians, I know that the Paralympians and that group as a whole for the most part is down-to-earth, super dedicated, hardworking, and Olympians are, too. I just think that Paralympians have such a great balance in their life in terms of working hard, living in the moment, being able to overcome everything and come back stronger.

What was it like to be an Olympian so young? How did that shape your goals?

SM: I’m very goal-oriented, and I set that goal [of the Olympics] for myself when I was super young. It was kind of weird for me because I had been working towards making the team for so long that when I was actually there, it was kind of like, “What do I do now? I’m at the Paralympics. This is what I’ve wanted to do for the last six years.” Skiing as a whole has been a huge part of shaping my character.

How do you intend on staying involved in athletics after graduation?

SM: Being an athlete is a big part of who I am. I’ll become a “NARP,” but I don’t think I’ll ever become a completely non-athletic person. I really think I’ll find something else that I want to work towards. I’m very goal-oriented. I need a reason to go to the gym and a reason to work hard. I don’t know. I’ll do something for fun. Maybe I’ll take up the horse thing a little more seriously.

Have you thought about getting involved in coaching?

SM: I haven’t really thought about that. It would probably be a little difficult because I wouldn’t be able to see my students ski. But I would think about it. I’ve actually had people ask me to teach them how to ski, and it’s kind of a weird thing, but I don’t think I could do it. I’ve been skiing since I was four. For me, just skiing is pretty much like walking as far as I’m concerned. I don’t remember not being able to ski.

How did you get involved with skiing, specifically?

SM: There was a really good adaptive sports foundation. When my parents found out I couldn’t see they were like, “We need her to be athletic.” They wanted a sport that they could do as a whole family and so they started bringing me to Windham Mountain in New York. I skied with their adaptive sports foundation for all of my childhood and it escalated from there.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.