Every evening after work, Mark Goldsborough would unwind with a brisk run or a game of softball. Then, five years ago, he lost his left leg in an automobile accident and his life changed dramatically.

"The hardest part for me after losing my leg was not being active," said the 32-year-old carpenter from Rockville who had been an avid distance runner at Good Counsel High School in Wheaton and at Montgomery College. "I wasn't sure what I could do."

A year after the accident, Goldsborough was walking again with a new, artificial leg and learned of a ski center for disabled people near Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire. When he traveled to New England to ski, he discovered that disabled fitness enthusiasts from around the country were joining together to promote physical and mental well-being though the National Handicapped Sports and Recreation Association.

"It's real important to get disabled people out together," says Goldsborough, who started a Washington chapter of NHSRA in 1982. He pauses for breath, since as he's been talking he's also been pulling on a rubber hose connected to a pole in the floor of a gym at the University of Maryland in College Park, where NHSRA is running a fitness clinic. After two days of lectures, discussions and an individual 30-minute fitness assessment, Goldsborough is learning how a person with a prosthesis can exercise his legs and upper body.

Increasing numbers of disabled people are getting involved in fitness programs, says NHSRA executive director Kirk Bauer. "I think they it's ultimately the same reason that gets nondisabled people involved. They want to feel better on a day-to-day basis. It's incredible how much you can increase your mobility when you're fit. Your gait gets better and you get stronger for everyday activity. "What we have been finding for the past 18 years," says the 37-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran, "is that the people who come into the program can't participate, not because of their disability, but because they are out of shape."

The fitness clinic provided fun outlets -- such as a pool party -- in addition to addressing important issues that disabled people ponder daily: What can one do about stiff muscles? About weak muscles? Which foods are best to eat?

With an emphasis on four aspects of fitness -- flexibilty, strength, aerobics and nutrition -- and the different types of disabilities -- paraplegia, quadraplegia, cerebral palsy and amputations -- Bauer and his volunteers transformed the University of Maryland gym into a health club for 40 to 50 people. In one area there was equipment for muscle-building workouts, while another section housed two televisions playing exercise videotapes. Instructors showed individuals how to make the best use of their bodies.

Started by a group of Vietnam veterans in 1967, NHSRA provides year-round sports and recreation activities to persons with orthopedic, spinal cord, neuromuscular and visual impairments. In response to the growing emphasis on fitness for handicapped, NHSRA developed the four-day fitness clinic in 12 cities last year and expanded to 16 cities this year.

The clinics have two goals: Improving the physical and mental well-being of disable people by getting them involved in physical fitness and training professionals to teach fitness and adaptive exercises to the disabled.

"This program is especially designed for physically disabled people who are not active and need to know how fitness can improve their health and overall quality of life," Bauer says.Which is why some of the clinic's instructors are also disabled. "I think there's an element of commonality," Bauer says. "They know you've been through what they are going through and that you understand. There's a fine line between babying someone and being too hard, and if you've been there before, it is easier to understand."

Some disabled persons are hesitant about joining the NHSRA program, Bauer says, because they feel uncomfortable with their disability. But Mary Fitzpatrick of Silver Spring was excited to be able to participate.

"I just figured I didn't want to put it off," says Fitzpatrick, a 30-year-old secretary whose leg was amputated below the knee eight months ago. "But I'm feeling good. I found out I was a lot stronger than I thought. I need to do more work on stretching. Today, I worked on just strength."

Fitzpatrick used to enjoy intricate Irish dancing before she discovered she had cancer of the foot. After five months of chemotherapy ending in May, she began working out again, bicycling and weightlifting at Spa Lady, a women's fitness club.

Now, with assistance from Bauer's instructors, Fitzpatrick is learning how to stretch, lift weights and do aerobic dancing, with hope someday of attempting to do Irish dances again.

"When you are encountering a disabled person," Bauer says, "there are a lot of negative things going on in him. It takes a lot of coaxing. When they taught me to ski, I laughed at it. I saw someone else skiing down the hill and it made me want to do it. Then when I went flying down the hill, it felt great."

Skiing is a very popular sport the disabled. "We can take a person with almost any kind of injury," Bauer says, "and teach them how to ski."

It was skiing that led Mary Ellen Yob, a 37-year-old occupational therapist from Camp Springs, Md., to NHSRA. Yob contracted bone cancer at 19 and her right leg was amputated. "Sixteen years later," she says, "skiing was the first time I had been involved with other amputees. I was manic for four months."

During her one-week ski clinic at Mount Sunapee, Yob met some disabled persons from the Washington chapter of NHSRA and joined. Now she is a certified ski instructor, and half of her friends are disabled. "Most of my friends are conditioned to my being active," Yob says. "They don't think of me as being disabled. I can't think of anyone who pampers me."

Yob says her strength as well as her aerobic fitness has improved since last year's fitness clinic. "I've become more faithful to working out since the clinic last year," says Yob. "And the nutrition part was very helpful."

Kylie Rothwell, a 28-year-old Takoma Park resident paralyzed from the waist down because of motor neuron dysfunction, discovered NHSRA quite by accident. While going to an interview downtown, she accidentally got off the elevator on the NHSRA floor so she checked out the program and got on a mailing list.

"Since I've always been interested in athletics," says Rothwell, a computer specialist for Rep. Cathy Long (D-La.), "this program was good for me.

"The clinic has made me realize the importance of nutrition; being aware of being flexible and keeping your weight down, not only day-to-day, but in the future. When you're confined to a wheelchair, keeping your weight down is so important." More Information

Call the National Handicapped Sports and Recreation Association: 783-1441.