From the mountains to The Strand: Mammoth offers model for South Bay para athletes

Shredding 'Off the Top' at Mammoth Mountain on Adaptive Mountain Bikes. Photo by Jacob Myhre/DSES

A skiing, biking and paddling program for people with disabilities in snowy Mammoth Lakes is a model for for the sunny South Bay  

by Marisa Gierlich

The concept of “adaptive recreation” dates back to the 1924 Paris Silent Games (Deaflympics). The games were the first international competition for athletes with disabilities. 

During the World War II years, the National Wheelchair Athletic Association helped wounded veterans rehabilitate playing wheelchair basketball. Neurologist Sir Ludwig Guddmann, who escaped to England from Nazi Germany, set the foundation for the Paralympic Games by organizing a 16-game competition for veterans in wheelchairs. The first National Wheelchair Games were held in the US in the 1950s. 

The Paris 2024 Olympics, from August 28 to September 8, will feature nearly 2,000 athletes from over 80 counties, competing in 22 sports, among them the blind soccer, seated volleyball, cycling, rowing, and track and field events.

Staff instructor Mary Toomey and an upright outrigger student. Photo by Jacob Myhre/DSES

The South Bay has several programs for people with disabilities. The most notable is the Friendship Foundation, which matches disabled with non-disabled high school students. It offers a range of adaptive clinics at South Bay high schools, ranging from football to cheer, as well monthly bowling, pickleball and yoga programs. The new Friendship Campus will have a full court gymnasium. The Jimmy Miller Foundation, which works with the Friendship foundation, offers ocean therapy and surf lessons to locals, and to Wounded Warrior Marines at Camp Pendleton. 

Most surf programs, including the South Bay Boardriders and CampSurf, offer surf lessons for people with disabilities. The Exceptional Kids Organization hosts social events throughout the year, including kite flying at the Redondo Beach Pier two weeks ago. The Beach Cities Health District offers services for persons with disabilities, ages 18 to 59

But in the South Bay, a community that values getting outside and feeling the stoke of physical activity, people with disabilities have few opportunities to participate in sports.

Larry Wolf and son Tyler (right) with members of the Wall-nuts running club during the 2021 Manhattan Beach 10 K. Photo by

Former Shorewood Realtors co-owner Larry Wolfe, who became paralyzed in 2016 after contracting West Nile Virus, commented in a recent Easy Reader interview that he is always surprised when rolling down the Manhattan Beach Strand, or having a martini at Ercole’s or Hennessey’s, not to see more people like himself, in wheelchairs. Wolf said he suspects neighbors with disabilities similar to his are less visible because they underestimate what they are capable of, and worse, their families underestimate them.

Wolf was a member of the Wal-nuts running group and has kept up his participation in the Manhattan Beach 10K, in his wheelchair, with his family and club members pushing him.

I myself had not thought much about accessibility for people with disabilities until a chance encounter several months ago. As a Hermosa Beach native with a regular 1970s beach-style upbringing, a life of movement and activity was the most natural thing in the world, as it once had been for Wolf. 

Through my career in the travel and hospitality industries, I had become familiar with ADA requirements  in California and Los Angeles County, but largely through administrative work.

During this period, the Disabilities Rights Movement was gaining momentum.

The National Amputee Skiers Association was formed in 1967, and in 1968 the first Special Olympic World Games welcomed 1,000 athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities from the United States and Canada. 

In 1973, the International Charter of Physical Education and Sport (UNESCO) declared access to physical education and sports to be a right.

In April 1977, hundreds of disabled and handicapped activists occupied  government buildings around the country in a successful effort to pressure Joseph Califano, the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, to enact Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 made it discrimination based on disability illegal.

The United Nations declared 1981 the “International Year of Disabled Persons.” In 1984 George Murray, whose career includes two Boston Marathon championships in the wheelchair division, became the first disabled athlete on the front of a Wheaties box. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed in 1990 and revised in 2008. In 2018 the  prize money for Paralympic Games athletes was increased by  400% to match those of Olympians. 

Morning session during Operation Mountain Freedom, the annual military and veterans camp. Photo by Jacob Myhre/DSES

My involvement in the Disabilities Rights Movement began last month when I embarked on what I refer to as, “the third and (hopefully) final chapter of my professional life.” Having risen through restaurant and travel industry ranks to become a Director of Operations and Director of Field Operations, respectively, I decided it was time to shift gears and focus on making some kind of lasting difference in the world.

Like many in the South Bay, I grew up skiing at Mammoth. And while Big Bear was closer, Mammoth felt more like our “local” mountain. 

In 2011, I took the job as beverage director for Mammoth Mountain, fulfilling both a career goal and a long held desire to live full-time in the mountains. I discovered I love living in a small town. For some, it can be suffocating. There is one grocery store, no direct mail delivery, and the nearest Trader Joe’s is 2.5 hours away (in good weather). Everyone knows everyone, and everyone knows everyone’s business. The characters you read about in the local paper, the ones making decisions you agree and don’t agree with on everything from short-term housing to education measures, are your neighbors and colleagues.  

The small town (population 7,271) accounts for half of the residents in the sparsely populated Mono County (population 13,274). When the town population swells to 30,000 over holiday weekends, the importance of Mammoth as a revenue powerhouse for the county and region cannot be underestimated. 

For non-profits and other government subsidized organizations, this means funding is concentrated into a fairly small pool. Between grants, local businesses, a very active volunteer community of retirees, and a donor base that hails largely from affluent parts of Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego, there is the potential for fundraising engagement far beyond what most towns situated at 8,500 feet with one main access road could ever dream of. 

There is the Mammoth Lakes Foundation, the Mammoth Mountain Community Foundation, Mammoth Recreation, Mammoth Lakes Tourism — a total of 36 non-profits. That equals a non-profit for every 201 residents. By comparison the South Bay would need 615 nonprofits to reach this same ratio. The South Bay currently has 202. 

Within the small pond that is Mammoth Lakes, there are several big fish. One of the biggest has is the Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra. 

Twenty years ago, Kathy Copeland and one volunteer launched the first dedicated adaptive recreation program in the Eastern Sierra. It was the winter of 2003 and expanding access to the mountains was just taking shape as a movement. Copeland, who had started ski instruction for disabled skiers after having established the kids ski program at Mammoth Mountain, saw a growing need for dedicated equipment and instruction. 

With a promise of hand-me-down ski school uniforms and a passionate appeal to the Mammoth Mountain Board of Directors, Copeland launched a Mammoth branch of what was then known Disabled Sports USA.  

 Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra has grown to a fully staffed, year-round, volunteer-rich organization that provides day camps and upwards of 2,000 lessons per year to individuals whose requirement for adaptive equipment or instruction would otherwise bar them from mountain sports.

I became familiar with Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra when I moved to Mammoth Lakes in 2011. Their office was, and still is, on the ground floor of the gondola building at Main Lodge. On any given day their staff is a bright presence, clad in bright orange and blue jackets on the hill. In the summer, the DSES trailer, full of paddle boards and mountain bikes, can be found at June Lake, or at the mountain biking trailhead in Sherwin Meadows. 

I left Mammoth for a different job opportunity, but stayed in touch with the community. Earlier this year I took a trail running clinic through Elevate Mammoth, a Beach Cities Health District style community organization. On the first day of class I walked into the wrong building of the local community college where the clinic was being held. Instead of the trail running clinic, I found myself in the pottery studio, face-to-face with Laura Beardsley, the Executive Director of DSES, who assumed the position upon Kathy Copeland’s retirement in 2020. 

Beardsley and I knew each other from working on various volunteer projects. I had always admired her strength and depth of experience, leading several non-profits in the Eastern Sierra and Yosemite. She had always thought that having someone on staff who lived outside the area and who had hospitality experience would be a good addition to the team. 

Call it luck or providence, but when I mistakenly walked into the room, Laura said “Marisa. I was just thinking about you the other day.” In the past, the timing had never been quite right either on my end or Laura’s end. But as we had coffee a few days later, we each identified that now the time was right. Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra was celebrating its 20th Anniversary and she needed help with fundraising and development. I joined the team as the development director in July of last year. 

Since then, the way that I see the world has changed or, at least, shifted. Discussions about “inclusion,” “ableism,” “help versus ‘support,” and “challenged versus disabled,” have become a regular part of my daily life. 

Over 100 kids from Exceptional Kids Organization participated in the groups annual kite flying day at the Redondo Beach pier two weeks ago. EKO organizes social events throughout the year. Photo courtesy of EKO

On my frequent returns to the South Bay, I often find myself asking the same question Larry Wolf asked. ‘Why don’t we see more people in wheelchairs rolling along The Strand?” 

Mammoth is a tough place to live regardless of age or physical ability. It sits at 8,500 feet, where the air is thin and the weather extreme. Shoveling out a driveway can be a prerequisite for going anywhere, and navigating icy roads, parking lots and sidewalks (where they exist) is a part of daily life for months out of the year. Fires come at a moment’s notice, requiring speed and agility to escape. It is a very easy landscape in which to imagine that no one with a disability would choose to live here. 

But, they do. And, thanks to the work of Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra, its state-of-the-art equipment and super skilled, highly trained staff, people not only navigate the Mammoth terrain, they shred. This year DSES placed the first disabled skier ever in a USAA sanctioned race. Adaptive mountain bikers took place in Pedalpalooza, and then shifted to gravel for the TUFF series. The stoke and exhilaration of mountain sports is being shared by everyone, against the backdrop of the stunning Eastern Sierra. 

Here in the South Bay, the weather is glorious, the terrain is sublime and navigable. To the Larry Wolfs of the South Bay, let’s get together for a martini at Ercole’s or, even better, for a paddle at June Lake. And in the meantime, if you would like to learn more about what we do, please reach out or come for a visit.

The Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra Springtacular, for kids and adults with cognitive and intellectual disabilities, takes place Tuesday April 23 through Friday, April 26. $500 for four days of individual and group instruction, equipment rentals, lift tickets and lunch. Scholarships available. For more information visit

Marisa Gierlich can be reached at ER



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