Positively Skiing : Bear Mountain Program Offers Disabled the Opportunity and Equipment to Get a Lift Out of Fast-Paced Winter Sport


Whining: To complain about the facts in an unusually nasal tone and in a feeble, peevish manner. Fine: $1.

--Notice posted in California Handicap Ski School

Janelle Smith's days as a figure skater ended when rheumatoid arthritis invaded her joints.

James Lawton Collins became a paraplegic when he fell from a tree and broke his back.

Kristi Hirsch "died" as an infant and came back to life a quadriplegic.

W.C. Fields--his real name--awoke in a hospital in 1976, looked down the bed where his legs used to be and asked, plaintively, " Both of them?"

They get together now . . . to go skiing.

The notice above is for the California Handicap Ski School's instructors, not the students, who have little patience with sympathy and no time for self-pity.

The nonprofit school is at the Bear Mountain ski resort near Big Bear Lake. It works with various schools and rehabilitation programs, including the Braille Institute and Special Olympics.

Director KelLe Malkewitz, a recreational therapist, started it as an eight-day pilot program in 1988, operating out of a tent and "my living room," she said. Last winter, with eight paid instructors and 200 volunteers, some 1,400 lessons were given to about 700 students. All were developmentally disabled, blind, deaf, lame or legless--but never hopeless.

"We can accommodate almost any disability," Malkewitz said. "We have the equipment to make it possible."

The only other similar, full-time school in the state is at Alpine Meadows in the Sierra. At Bear Mountain, the resort donates a building at the base of the slopes and pays the electricity bill. Students pay nominal fees for lift tickets. The use of special equipment is free. Instructors' salaries and payments for workers' compensation insurance soak up most of the annual budget of about $150,000, which is supported by private donors and grants from the Amateur Athletic Foundation's fund of 1984 Olympic Games profits.

Money is tight, but attitude is high.

"So much of a disabled person's life is not successful," Malkewitz said. "It's real important that they experience success out here. It's important for my staff to always be upbeat and positive."

Hence, the notice about whining, which is not really necessary. The instructors are almost as upbeat as the students.

Skiing is easier than walking.

--Janelle Smith

That's true, Malkewitz said.

"People walk with crutches or walkers, and it's a lot of work for them to get around. Then they get on the slope and gravity takes over, and they move effortlessly."

Nevertheless. . . .

"I was scared to death," Smith recalled. "When I got up there, the hill seemed so big. I was afraid people were going to run into me."

Smith, 34, was stricken by rheumatoid arthritis at 20. She lives in Crestline and drives herself daily to San Bernardino to teach kindergarten. She has bright green eyes, an easy laugh and an electric wheelchair that "I only use when I need to."

She makes do with canes. In '89, when she decided to learn to ski, her husband, who doesn't ski, and the rest of her family tried to talk her out of it. She hadn't skied before, so why now?

Why not? Last year, competing on two skis while holding two outriffers--ski poles rigged with miniature skis for stability--she joined the Far West Disabled Ski Team and won gold medals in the regionals in slalom and giant slalom.

"I'd like to qualify for the nationals," she said.

There's plenty to life besides just walking.

--James Collins

Collins, 39, teaches English and social studies from a wheelchair at South High in Bakersfield.

Twenty years ago, he climbed a tree to watch the moon rise over the Hudson River Valley near Poughkeepsie, N.Y. A branch broke, and he fell 20 or 30 feet. Three days later, he was able to drag himself to obtain help, "like a seal."

"It was a survival thing like you read in Reader's Digest," he said. "It occurred to me, Well, look, I'm going to be paralyzed for life here. Why don't I just stay out here until I die and end the problem? I had to make that decision whether to live or give up. I decided I was going to do everything I could possibly do in life."

Collins was an intermediate skier before the accident. Now he is learning to maneuver on a monoski--a fiberglass tub mounted a foot high over a single ski. He uses hand-held outriggers and subtle shifts in body weight to turn.

"You're setting the edge, only on one ski instead of two," he said. "You have the outriggers to initialize the turn and also for balance. So you really are skiing down the mountain, only you're skiing on your butt instead of your feet."

Collins also swims, scuba-dives, plays tennis twice a week, kayaks, goes camping and rides a hand-crank bicycle. What can't he do?

"They've adapted every single sport, including sky diving, to people who are disabled," he said. "All it takes is the mind that wants to do it and technology. Someday I'm going to jump out of an airplane."

Collins feels kinship with Mike Utley, the Detroit Lion guard who was paralyzed during a game against the Rams last month.

"I'd say (to him), 'Go for it. Do as much as you can. Don't look back. There's wheelchair football. Move to Bakersfield. We'll put you on the Rolling Chariots.' He'd be awesome."

Just because she's handicapped doesn't mean she can't enjoy life.

--Dan Hirsch

Kristi Hirsch, soon to be 16, has suffered from a cerebral palsy-like condition since infancy. She smothered when clothes fell over her, and her brain was damaged.

"She was pronounced dead at the scene, but through a lot of rehabilitation, she's doing super," her father said.

Kristi can't walk, talk much or use her arms. But she can smile, and on this day she was smiling because she was going to ski.

"It's all her idea," her father said. "We weren't planning to ski this weekend, but she wanted to go, so here she is."

Dan Hirsch is track and field coach and chairman of the physical education department at Buena Park High. His wife and two other daughters are avid skiers. When the school opened two years ago at Bear Mountain, they bought a cabin nearby, and Kristi was among the first students.

Kristi skies lying on her back in a tub, called a sit-ski, tethered to an instructor but exerting limited control with a horizontal pole fitted with outrigger skis.

For Kristi, that's skiing, and that's what counts.

"We made a commitment when she got hurt that if God pulled her through, we'd provide her with just as much fun as the other kids," Hirsch said.

I ski better now than I did before.

--W.C. Fields

Fields, a landscape designer who has homes in Santa Ana and at Big Bear Lake, is a certified ski instructor for able-bodied skiers at Bear Mountain. Most of his students and half of the other instructors don't know that he skis on artificial legs.

He was a security officer at Disneyland in 1976 during a string of motor-home thefts in the parking lots. A suspect panicked, gunned the engine and pinned Fields to a cement pylon, crushing his legs.

"I woke up, assessed what had happened and tried to analyze what I'd be able to do in the future," he said. "Skiing? I'd already quit that . . . too crowded, too expensive."

But eight years later, he found a program that teaches amputees to ski, relearned the sport and became good enough to race. When Bear Mountain offered him a job as an instructor, he reported for the physical examination and was told to remove his shoes, socks and pants "so the doctor can check your knees and ankles."

When the doctor saw there were no knees or ankles, he said: "Is this a joke?"

At first, he refused to pass Fields until Fields proved he was as capable as an able-bodied person. Now he proves it regularly. But only to himself.

"I don't try to keep it a secret," Fields said, "but it's to our advantage if we're not focused on it."

The reason, he said: "Sometimes it will bother people."

Information on the California Handicap Ski School will be available at the Bear Mountain exhibit of the Winterfest Ski Spectacular at the Anaheim Convention Center Thursday through Sunday or by phoning (714) 585-2519, ext. 269.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World