It's easy to spot Tom Brown in the water. He's the skinny guy way out in front of the sailboat pack, finding the breeze no one else does, the sun glinting off his black prosthetic leg. "It's carbon," he says with a wink. "Same stuff the spinnaker pole's made out of."
Brown, 40, of Mount Desert Island, Maine, is a water-bound Tom Sawyer: tall and lanky, with a sly grin and a thousand stories, most of which are true. He's happiest in the choppy waters off Mount Desert. Arctic terns and harbor seals keep him company as he glides past the barnacled remains of his great-grandfather's dance hall at the end of an old pier, past Bear Island lighthouse to Great Cranberry Island and beyond. He knows every underwater ledge, every osprey nest, the changing patterns of the tides. "The water is alive," says Brown. "I hate it if I can't see it every day. It's such a big part of me."
Brown has run with the wind all his life. At 10 he was told he would lose his right leg to bone cancer and was given only a one-in-five chance of survival. On the night before the surgery, the youngster clipped the toenails of his right foot as a memento, put them in a matchbox and sprinted down the hospital corridor one last time.
He's racing still. Today Brown is a world-class sailor of Solings, the three-person keelboats that are the largest boats to sail in Olympic competition. He has set his sights on Sydney. To qualify for the Olympics—Brown has already qualified for the Paralympics in the 2.4-meter class—he must compete against able-bodied sailors at the trials in San Francisco on June 1-11. Qualifying races for the eight spots in San Francisco were held last week in Florida, and Brown finished fifth overall. Only one boat will make it to Sydney. It's a long shot, but as Brown's father, Buddy, says, "How the hell can they tell you you can't do it if you haven't tried yet?"
The water is just down the hill from Brown's home, beckoning. Most days, though, he works at his family's hardware store, F.T. Brown's, in the tidy village of Northeast Harbor. Tom and his wife, Kelly, 26, live over the store, as his parents did before them. "Usually, all I do in the morning is get in the leg, because my sneaker and pants are already on it, and go to work," he says.
F.T. Brown's is an old-fashioned place, crammed to the rafters with marine gear, Dominican cigars, Radio Flyer red wagons and overhead display cases of shorebirds shot and stuffed by Brown's great-greatgrandfather. Tom is out back, in a warehouse attached to the store, wearing tattered blue jeans, running shoes and a windbreaker. He's pouring epoxy into a cracked rudder, hoping to make it usable in his next race. Brown has been handy since he was a kid, when he learned to repair the prosthetic legs he was constantly banging up and outgrowing.
He keeps three of them as trophies on a gun rack upstairs. Made with leather straps and tan foam, they're flaking and battered, patched together with sail twine and duct tape. "They've been through hell," Brown says proudly. He points to another leg that leans against a wall. "That hydraulic one didn't work until I fell overboard in St. Thomas in 1984," he says. "After that it worked like a dream."
Down at the harbor Brown hoists himself aboard his boat and inspects the rigging. His left leg and his strong, sinewy arms do most of the work, while the carbon leg gracefully swings and pivots. "I need a leg that can go overboard and I can go with it," he says. "Something light that I can throw around quick."
Losing a leg did not slow Brown down very much. Buddy got him on a bicycle right after surgery. Tom learned to walk by practicing in front of the living room mirror, and before long he was playing pickup football and basketball and pitching for his Little League baseball team.
But the amputation, his doctor told him, was "the easy part. The hard part's coming up." For two nightmarish years, until he was 12, Tom had chemotherapy once every week; every six weeks he'd get the burning shots for seven straight days. Hoping to cheer him up, one of "the summer ladies," as his mother, Becky, calls them, took him racing in a small Mercury, a 15-foot keelboat. They won the race—and he was hooked. "The open ocean was something I could escape to," Brown says. "There were so many things I couldn't control. But when I looked out at the water, I could sense what was happening. I could see where the wind was, what was happening with the tide."