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Nick Scandone, Paralympic gold-medal sailor with ALS, leaves legacy at 42

The sailor, who had ALS, died on Jan. 2 after winning a gold in September with Maureen McKinnon-Tucker at the Beijing Paralympics in his farewell race.

January 17, 2009|Bill Dwyre

The sports pages are daily exercises in tributes to courage, where stories gush over the heroics of head-on tackles and nerve-wrenching 20-foot putts.

There is courage, and then there is Nick Scandone.

The day after New Year's, Scandone died. He was 42. In the Beijing Paralympics four months ago, Scandone and his sailing crew, Maureen McKinnon-Tucker, won the gold medal in the SKUD-18 Class.

Neither Bob Costas nor NBC was there. Nor was the Los Angeles Times or the Boston Globe, even though Scandone is from Fountain Valley and McKinnon-Tucker is from Marblehead, Mass.

But people who sail, or follow the sport closely, knew a story when they saw one.

Scandone was a world-class, able-bodied sailor when he was in his 20s and early 30s. At age 36, he was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. When he took part in the Paralympics, he was about two years beyond the normal life expectancy of somebody with ALS, a disease characterized by progressive muscle degeneration that leads to fatal paralysis. McKinnon-Tucker, 43, is a paraplegic. She injured her spine when she fell 13 feet off an ocean retaining wall in 1995.

In the SKUD-18, all their sailing could be done by hand.

On the last day of racing, Scandone and McKinnon-Tucker drove their wheelchairs to the boat, even though they had been told the night before that they had accumulated more than enough points to win.

"The coach of the Canadian team walked up to us," McKinnon-Tucker said, "and kind of casually said that his calculations had us so far ahead that nobody could catch us for the gold. He was telling us we had won.

"I remember rolling over to Nick, hugging him, and starting to cry. He did too. I only saw him cry twice while we were in China. The other time was the first day, when we got to the boat and he looked out and said, 'I made it.' "

On that last day, the two sailors were lifted in and harnessed into position once again. They set sail in a race they hadn't needed to run but did so out of respect for their competitors, and finished second.

Soon, something even more memorable happened.

Sailors, crew, support staff, spectators -- especially people who knew the story -- gathered along a sea wall as the boats returned. Scandone and McKinnon-Tucker, flying the American flag and flags of their respective yacht clubs, sailed two victory laps along the wall as people applauded and cried.

Scandone's wife, Mary Kate, has the scene indelibly painted in her memory.

"It was his farewell race," she said. "He knew this would be his last time on the water."

Nearby were Scandone's coach, Mike Pinckney, and his brother, Vincent "Rocky" Scandone, who served, among other things, as the crew's muscle, as well as moral support.

"They'd lift him into the boat," Mary Kate said, "and they'd watch them sail away. Then they'd stand there and shake their heads. It was a miracle. Every day was a miracle."

Mary Kate paused, composed herself, and added: "The whole thing was very bittersweet. He won. It was over. Now, in my mind, I knew he was coming home to die."

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When she married Scandone 10 years ago, Mary Kate had a husband full of life. He was an active businessman, a sales director for an Orange County company that makes wood-fired ovens, and a man in love with the outdoors.

He grew up near the water in Fountain Valley, started sailing as a youngster, won several national championships and just missed making the U.S. sailing team for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. He also surfed, fished and played golf. He was good at all those sports.

"I think he had something like four holes in one," Mary Kate said.

They took their honeymoon in the Virgin Islands and rented a sailboat. She was expecting a leisurely, romantic ride.

"Every boat that came nearby, he wanted to race," she said.

She brought cheese and crackers and French sausage along for their sail.

"He didn't have a fishing rod," she said, "but he had some line and a hook, and he used the French sausage for bait. There were people in boats around us, fishing with good equipment, but Nick was the only one catching anything. One of the other guys came over to find out how he was doing that. I don't think anybody else had thought about French sausage for bait."

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In 2002, after enduring constant back pain, Scandone went to a doctor and eventually got a phone call, asking whether he knew what Lou Gehrig's disease was.

His response, according to friends, was that he knew the famous baseball player had died before he reached age 40, and that he was on his way out the door to go on a fishing trip, which he did.

In less than a year, Scandone was in leg braces and thinking about Paralympic gold. It was a dream that kept him alive.

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