Opening the Outdoors
An adaptive mountain bike trail on Sharp’s Ridge is the latest local project for Catalyst Sports, which makes adventure accessible.
by jesse fox mayshark • december 8, 2020
an adaptive mountain bike trail winds past an accessible play area on the north side of sharp's ridge.
At first glance, the trail winding up the north side of Sharp’s Ridge looks like just another woodland path, similar to hundreds of other sections of hiking and biking tracks that have been created in recent years as Knoxville’s outdoor recreation amenities multiply.
Knoxville is becoming a leader in providing recreation for people with disabilities.
But a closer look shows that the pathway is wider, flatter and at a less challenging grade than the narrow, sometimes steep trails that cover the other side of the ridge. It is, in fact, designed to accommodate adaptive mountain bikes and wheelchairs. And it starts from a new adaptive playground at the base of the hill, equipped with swings and climbing areas designed for children with disabilities.
The trail and play area are products of a partnership led by the Legacy Parks Foundation, with a grant from the Trinity Health Foundation. They will be dedicated to the City of Knoxville as public parkland, an expansion of the existing trails and outdoor amenities on Sharp’s Ridge.
The trail is also the latest local endeavor of Catalyst Sports, a nonprofit organization based in Atlanta dedicated to providing outdoor recreation opportunities for people with disabilities.
Catalyst will manage three adaptive mountain bikes for people with different kinds of mobility challenges, which are available to rent at the nearby Fountain City Pedaler bicycle shop at 1715 N. Central St. The bikes were purchased by Legacy Parks with a grant from the Siddiqi Foundation.
“Being able to get out and kayak, get out and mountain bike, get out into nature and go for a hike with your kids that you’ve never been able to do before, it allows you a healthier lifestyle,” said Eric Gray, the founder of Catalyst Sports.
Gray, who lost an eye as a result of a childhood struggle with cancer, is familiar with the challenges. His path to Catalyst began as a boy with visits to Camp Sunshine in Decatur, Ga., which serves children with cancer.
“That allowed me new opportunities, it allowed me to feel normal,” Gray said. “No one asked me, ‘What happened to your eye, how come you don’t have hair,’ and all that kind of stuff.”
Returning to Camp Sunshine to volunteer as a counselor while he was in college, Gray was introduced to the idea of recreation therapy as a career. An avid outdoorsman who fantasized about making a living as a river guide, he was taken with the idea of helping other people challenge themselves and enjoy nature as much as he does.
After earning a degree in recreation therapy from the University of Georgia, Gray spent three years as an intern and employee at the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah, which promotes and facilitates outdoor recreation from skiing to camping for people with a range of disabilities. Gray then returned to Georgia determined to broaden the experiences available in the Southeast.
In 2013, he founded Catalyst Sports, which seven years later has grown to include chapters in Atlanta and seven other cities including Knoxville, Nashville and Chattanooga. It remains a shoestring nonprofit, with local programming offered typically through partnerships and volunteers.
“I’m horrible at fundraising,” Gray said with a laugh. But he now has a staff member dedicated to it, with the result that he’s finally able to make Catalyst a full-time endeavor.
Catalyst’s Knoxville efforts are headed up by Leslie King, who runs a local orthotics and prosthetics clinic.
“Every day for most of my adult life, I’ve worked with people with disabilities,” King said. “And you can see where there’s so much need.”
Catalyst’s first project in Knox County was its kayaking program at the Cove at Concord Park. Catalyst keeps adaptive kayaks in a boathouse there and King organizes regular outings on the river. The local chapter also has monthly adaptive climbing clinics at River Sports on Sutherland Avenue.
Besides the individual benefits of health and exercise, King said, “It also creates community. They have now met more people who may have the same disabilities that they have.”
Gray had already hosted adaptive mountain bike clinics in Atlanta and Chattanooga, and the growth of the mountain bike scene in Knoxville made it a natural place to establish a program.
“It just opens up to a whole new group of demographics,” Gray said. “People that previously mountain biked and want to get out into nature, that want to go on a nature hike, whatever that looks like.”
Carol Evans, executive director of Legacy Parks Foundation, said working with Catalyst gave her organization new experience and knowledge that she hopes can be applied across the county.
“What we discovered is it’s not that hard to build an adaptive trail,” Evans said. She said the combination of the trail and the nearby adaptive bike rental program “is kind of the perfect partnership.”
With the trail set to become part of a city park, Stephanie Brewer Cook, the city’s ADA coordinator, said it was one more piece of making public amenities accessible to everyone.
“I just think it’s a super positive thing,” Cook said. “I’m really proud of Legacy Parks and Catalyst Sports.”
Cook said it can also serve as an example of how to build accessibility into any given piece of infrastructure.
“We just have to be intentional,” she said. “On any project, you know what the end result is hoping to be. What’s not always easy or routine is to think way outside the box of the not-so-average end user.”
Among the early users of the new trail and play area were Anthony Crist and his son, Hayden, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and is in a wheelchair. Hayden has grown up camping and hiking, but his activities have been increasingly restricted by physical limitations.
“Even Hayden’s indoor wheelchair, that is not really meant to go outdoors but we torture the poor thing all the time, the trail worked out well for that,” Anthony Crist said. “Even the way they designed the drainage swale crossings, they’re flat enough that Hayden was able drive over them.”
He added, “Hopefully as they develop the Urban Wilderness, they’ll put in more of that kind of stuff that truly is an outdoor experience for folks.”
Gray said in his view, Knoxville is on its way to becoming a model of accessible outdoor recreation.
“Catalyst’s overarching goal is to be able to provide mountain biking, kayaking, and climbing in all of our cities, and Knoxville has been the first one to hit that target,” he said. “They’re setting the trend for what should be happening in every city in the Southeast.”
Directions: To get to the new adaptive play area and trail, take Bruhin Road to Breda Drive, just south of I-640. Follow Breda to Tiberius Road, and turn right. At the dead end of Tiberius, turn left onto a gravel track and follow it to the parking area.
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to identify the funder of the adaptive mountain bike purchase as the Siddiqi Foundation, through the Legacy Parks Foundation.