Umstead is on the new season of Dancing with the Stars, which premieres Monday, Sept. 24, at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. The athlete’s partner on the dance floor is pro Artem Chigvintsev, but she has a second set of hands (or paws) helping her behind the scenes.
Just like in her training for the Paralympic Games, Umstead is enlisting the help of her guide dog Aziza to prepare for DTWS.
“Aziza is my comfort place. She gives me the confidence to get around everywhere I need to go so that I can be a part of the show. She is there supporting me during every little detail – watching me, ready to take care of me when I need her,” Umstead tells PEOPLE.
Having a familiar, furry face during practice makes taking on new challenges easier for Umstead, who is keeping up with the show’s demanding dance schedule.
“For the Paralympics you have four years to prepare. For DWTS I have two weeks to prepare for two dances, then one week to prepare for more dances. It’s very short training in comparison to learning something in full detail, understanding it, getting better at it. In sport, that’s a focus you have for four years. Here, this is a focus that’s week to week,” says the three-time bronze medalist.
For Aziza, dancing comes naturally: Umstead says the dog adores sliding across the dance floor and meeting new people.
“She gets super excited. She puts the tutu on and wiggles around, and she’s happy to do it as long as she knows she’s getting her Natural Balance treats. As long as there are treats, she’ll do her dance moves on the floor,” Umstead, who partnered with Natural Balance ahead of the 2018 Paralympic Games, says of what Aziza is like during practice.
The presence of a talented pooch is a perk the entire DTWS cast is enjoying.
Umstead says Aziza “has a blanket in the corner of the dance room where she’s always watching us and everyone comes in and says hello” to the dog when she is relaxing and not in her harness.
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Thanks to this supportive cast, Aziza and her own strength, Umstead feels ready to conquer the next ‘mountain’ ahead of her: the ballroom.
“I’m excited to get out there and see what I’m capable of when it comes to dancing. And seeing how being visually impaired and having Multiple Sclerosis comes together and hopefully it’s a beautiful package that America will love,” she says. “There are nerves of excitement, fear, being vulnerable.”