Paralympic Sport Club Spotlight: Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra

By Caryn Maconi | Nov. 08, 2013, 1 p.m. (ET)

Alpine skier Katrina Schaber is one of the Paralympic Winter Games hopefuls who trains at Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra
Katrina Schaber, who learned to ski at Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra, is a hopeful for the Paralympic Winter Games.

Carolina Schaber thought her family would never be able take a ski vacation together.

Carolina’s daughter Katrina has cerebral palsy and she had always found traditional ski lessons frustrating. Katrina would cry, fall often, struggle to keep up and ultimately lose motivation.

The first time Katrina took a lesson with Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra, though, everything changed.

 “It was spring skiing, so it had rained a little and she was sopping wet,” her mother remembers. “I said, ‘Oh my God, she’s going to have a meltdown!’”

But this time, Katrina’s experience was different.

She reached the end of her run, came to a stop, and said, “Mom! I loved it… They finally got me.”

That was four years ago. 

Since then, Katrina has mastered the sport of adaptive alpine skiing, racing her way to an International Paralympic Committee Top 25 world ranking and a No. 6 ranking in North America. At age 16, she is the youngest skier on the international racing circuit and has won back-to-back national junior championship titles. She is already marking her calendar as a hopeful for the Sochi 2014 or Pyeongchang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games.

“When I got involved with DSES, it kind of clicked,” Katrina said. “It’s nice to be able to ski with people who understand what you need to be able to be successful.”

Katrina’s mother says she is vastly more mature, self-assured and physically capable than she was in those early years.

“It’s amazing to see the confidence in her, and overall the way she works with people. She’s a whole different kid,” Carolina said. “Her range of motion, her strength … Her physician is saying, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing for your CP, but don’t stop!’”

Katrina’s success would not have been possible without Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra, a Paralympic Sport Club based in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. DSES’ mission is to enhance the lives and improve the health of individuals with physical or cognitive disabilities through therapeutic recreation, with the ultimate goal of bringing athletes with competitive potential into the Paralympic pipeline.

The club focuses primarily on alpine and cross-country skiing, snowboarding and biathlon, running its programs out of the nearby Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. Additional opportunities are available in sports ranging from cycling and paratriathlon to rock climbing and kayaking.

With the exception of sport-specific training camps, all instruction offered at DSES is one-on-one, meaning each athlete receives individualized coaching from one of DSES’ 11 full-time staff members and approximately 275 trained volunteers.

One such coach is Maggie Palchak, the club’s Paralympic sports program coordinator. Palchak volunteered with DSES for four years before joining the small paid staff in February 2008. She has United States Ski and Snowboard Association Level 100, Professional Ski Instructors of America Level 2 Nordic Downhill and Level 3 Adaptive coaching certifications.

Nordic skier Tyler Stern trains at Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra
Tyler Stern took up Nordic skiing at Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra, a Paralympic Sport Club in Mammoth, Calif. He has been skiing nine years. 

Palchak is also an inspiring mentor and close family friend to many of the club’s athletes, including Katrina and 13-year-old Tyler Stern.

Tyler has spastic quadriplegia and competes in Nordic skiing using a sit-ski (he recently received his own rig via a grant from the Challenged Athletes Foundation). This year, he has been invited on scholarship to The Hartford Ski Spectacular, a winter sports festival for athletes with disabilities. Palchak will travel with Stern and support him at the event, which runs from Dec. 2-8 in Breckenridge, Colo.

“[Maggie] is unbelievable,” Tyler’s mother, Cindy Stern, said. “She’s my hero. I don’t think that I would trust anyone else with my son, but I definitely trust her.”

Tyler has been skiing with DSES for nine years. When his family first inquired about the club, all lesson times were booked. Regardless, the staff carved out extra time for Tyler to take an introductory course, and his passion for winter sports was ignited.

“The door is always open to you. No matter how full they are, they’ll always find a spot for you, so that’s motivating,” Cindy said. “They’re a one-of-a-kind organization.”

While DSES has many youth participants, the program caters to athletes of all ages and types of disability. Nate Gratz, 39, began participating in DSES programs in 2011, just 10 months after injuring his spinal cord in an ocean-swimming accident. Through DSES, Gratz said has been able to return to all activities he once loved, from swimming to fishing to skiing. He’s even tried some brand-new ones, such as paddleboarding, which he said was one of his biggest challenges this year.

“If I can handcycle, ski, fish, there’s nothing I can’t do that I could do prior to my accident,” Gratz said. “They’re so accommodating and helpful, adapting to any situation or injury.”

In addition to providing athletic instruction, DSES runs a thrift shop in the town of Mammoth Lakes. At “Second Chance Thrift Shop,” students with disabilities gain valuable job training through the Mammoth High School Workability Program. All proceeds from sales go directly into DSES programming.

DSES also provides therapeutic opportunities for active duty and veteran service members, including summer camping getaways and military-specific training camps. The club is set to host Operation Mountain Freedom, a Paralympic Wounded Warrior camp, from Jan. 27-31, 2014.

“Maggie (Palchak) has worked with a lot of wounded warriors, specifically changing their lives and getting them involved,” Carolina Schaber said. “Wounded warriors are very competitive people, and when something happens to them, they want to continue to do things – they just don’t know they can.”

Whether catering to injured military or youth like Tyler and Katrina, sport clubs like DSES help spread the word that people with disabilities can be competitive athletes. 

“You know, there may be differences in how you perform an activity, but not in your ability,” Cindy Stern said. “You may do it in a sit-ski or a handcycle, you might have one leg or two legs, but the drive is still there.”

And for Carolina Schaber, DSES is more than just a sport club. It is the reason she can now bring her whole family on ski trips; this time, with daughter Katrina leading the way.

“The people that work there – it’s not even just coaches, it’s family,” Carolina said. “Maggie and I keep in touch, we get dinner. It’s a relationship that will always be there. Everybody supports each other.

“It’s a great family that we never knew we would have.”