With Relentless Drive, and a Little Help From a Friend


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Staci Mannella ’18 knows a thing or two about tackling difficulties. The New Jersey native juggles the demands of two varsity sports and Ivy League academics. But Mannella—who was born with a rare visual impairment known as achromatopsia, which limits her color perception and visual acuity—has to add stairs, slopes, trees, street crossings, and crowded places to her list of challenges.

For sports and academics, she has athletic talent and relentless drive; for getting around, an extra pair of eyes and a best friend—her guide dog, Smidge.

A world-class skier, World Cup gold medalist, and varsity athlete on the College equestrian team, Mannella defies stereotypes as well as misconceptions of what it’s like to be a college student with a disability.

At Home at Dartmouth 

Mannella’s love for speed and slopes began at age 4 when she descended her first mountain, holding on to a bamboo pole between two ski guides. Her parents had hoped she’d at least be able to ski during family outings. But by age 11, she was competing in her first alpine skiing national championship. During a course, Mannella skis behind a guide who relays information about the trail via Bluetooth headsets inside their helmets.

So far, her skiing career has included four national championship titles, a gold medal at the World Cup, and a spot in the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Games, where she had two sixth-place finishes.

Her love for horses came along at age 10, when she begged her mother to buy raffle tickets for free riding lessons. Mannella won. Whether on the mountain or in the arena, she’s been winning ever since.

During her college search, she knew she wanted to attend a school where she could be challenged academically, ski and ride, and also pursue her long-term goal to become an equine vet.

“Dartmouth had everything I was looking for,” she says. Dartmouth’s quarter system allows her to take the winter off to ski without falling behind in classes, and she has found a place on the equestrian team.

“Staci’s a real natural,” says Sally Batton, head coach of the equestrian team, who often has her riders jump with their eyes closed during practice. It’s an easy feat for Mannella, who relies on rhythm and feel to execute her jumps.

“The team has embraced her,” says Batton, “but how can you not? As one of our students says, ‘She’s not Staci with a visual disability, she’s just Staci.’”

Smidge, too, has found her niche on campus. She’s the team’s unofficial mascot. Her very own Dartmouth ID reads “Employee.”

A Good Match

At the urging of her parents, who were concerned about their daughter’s independence and mobility upon starting college, Mannella applied to be matched with a guide dog the year before she graduated from high school. Her match would turn out to be Smidge.

The golden-Lab mix, whose name comes from a “smidge” of black fur on her right side, spent her first two years in a home where volunteer puppy-raisers for the Guide Dog Foundation in Long Island socialized her until she was old enough to enter training.

At the Guide Dog Foundation, applicants and service dogs enter a meticulous matching program to ensure that the dog suits a person’s personality, lifestyle, and physical needs. The dog matched with Mannella would need to be comfortable being around horses, navigating a college campus, and traveling.

Smidge’s training was tailored to her future owner’s lifestyle well before Mannella showed up for two weeks of guide dog school to train with her new dog. It was a good match, but like any successful relationship, they had to work at it, she says. “It took me and Smidge a few months to figure each other out.”

Now the two are best friends. “Me and Smidge, we get each other,” Mannella says.

The pair can often be seen around campus. Smidge wears a harness and a “do not pet” sign while she works.

“I work her pretty hard,” Mannella admits. But even a good guide dog can have an off day. When Smidge is easily distracted or having trouble getting around obstacles, Mannella gives her the afternoon off and lavishes her with treats and playtime. 

Mannella’s mother, Susan Arnold, takes comfort in knowing Smidge is always by her daughter’s side. 

 “There’s only one person on this Earth when Smidge is working, and it’s Staci. It warms my heart to know that I can send my daughter anywhere and she will be protected … she can be independent.”

Staci Mannella, on one of the College’s horses, and Sally Batton, head coach of the equestrian team. “Staci’s a real natural,” says Batton. (Photo by Robert Gill)

Defying Preconceptions

In addition to her physical environment, Mannella has had to learn to navigate the tricky terrain of social interactions.

While having a guide dog might expose the handler to the gaze of strangers who can’t see beyond her disability, Mannella says having Smidge works her in favor.

“The biggest part about having Smidge is that people can tell that I can’t see. It’s almost like an identification tool.” This spares her from having to explain to people why she might need help, say, reading the menu on a wall at a restaurant. “Before Smidge, I couldn’t walk into a store confidently and ask someone for help.”

As an athlete, Mannella continues to challenge preconceptions about what a visually impaired person can achieve.

She attributes her successes to her parents, who raised her to believe she had no limits and allowed her to try everything, from karate to gymnastics. While Mannella didn’t succeed at tee-ball because she would run into the tee, or soccer, because she couldn’t see the ball, she focused her energies in areas where she could capitalize on her natural abilities.

In sports and in the rest of life, Mannella says her stubbornness allows her to excel. “I feel like I have to work twice as hard as able-bodied people to prove myself. I’ve never used my vision as an excuse.”

Her next goal: to bring home a medal in the 2018 Peoyong Chang Paralympic Games in South Korea.

Paola Ortega