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The Games of Their Lives
L. Jon Wertheim
December 14, 2009
As swimmer Marin Morrison and sailor Nick Scandone fought deadly diseases, they mustered all their strength and courage to fulfill a final dream: to compete in the Beijing Paralympics
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December 14, 2009

The Games Of Their Lives

As swimmer Marin Morrison and sailor Nick Scandone fought deadly diseases, they mustered all their strength and courage to fulfill a final dream: to compete in the Beijing Paralympics

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It was a simple craft made of fiberglass and sporting a single sail. But maneuvering a boat wherever he pleased fed something inside Nick. He liked relying on his intuition to gauge the wind, the tide, the currents. He liked taking calculated risks, tacking to an area no one else in the fleet had thought to go. And the rhythms of sailing fit his measured personality. "In other sports you might get jacked up and rely on adrenaline for those bursts," says Vince Scandone, Nick's older brother. "Sailing is the opposite: You need to be patient and calm and methodical. That was Nick."

Before long he was winning every race he entered. Not that he told anyone. Apart from being a profoundly happy kid, he was profoundly modest, preferring to talk about girls or surfing or the Angels baseball team than about his feats in a motorless boat. He had his land persona and his water persona, his land friends and his water friends, and he took pains to keep them separate.

Nick went to college at UC Irvine. It was a fine school. It was near home. It was near the beach. Above all, it had a sailing program. By the time he graduated, in 1990, he had been an All-America and a member of a national championship team. Though sinewy-strong from pulling all those ropes, Nick still wasn't physically imposing, maybe 5'8", 150 pounds. It was his superior sailing cortex that won him so many races. Time and again he'd sense something no one else sensed—an incoming breeze, a subtle change in the current—and act. Before anyone else caught on, Nick was leading by 15 lengths.

He was a favorite to make the U.S. sailing team in the two-man 470 Class for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. But then he smudged the line between cool and careless. He bickered with his crew. A few weeks before the trials he went surfing and was knocked off his board by a giant wave. He came away unscathed, but his behavior bespoke something other than a full commitment to sailing. He finished second in the trials and missed the spot on the team. For the first time anyone could remember, Nick wasn't smiling.

He was 26 and so disappointed in himself that he took a break from competitive sailing. He got jobs selling pizza ovens and then advertisements for a sailing publication. The work paid the bills but didn't exactly rouse his passion. He married but was divorced within a couple of years.

Eventually he began competing again. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but his life got better. He began racing on weekends and discovered that his sixth sense in a boat hadn't deserted him. He volunteered to coach a group of female sailors his mom's age who called themselves the Briny Bunch. At Balboa he met a blonde Midwestern transplant, Mary Kate Stoffregen, and took her sailing on their first date. Two years later they got married. For their honeymoon they sailed around the British Virgin Islands.

Not long after that Nick began experiencing back pain. It was annoying, "a pain in the ass even though it's in my back," he'd joke. Then it really started to hurt. He assumed it was either bad genes—his mom had needed back and neck surgery—or the unfortunate legacy of spending countless hours sitting in a little boat. He went to a chiropractor, figuring he'd need his spine realigned if he wanted to return to elite racing.

The emotions came in a torrent. That blurry vision Marin Morrison had been experiencing? A couple of weeks after the state meet she visited an eye doctor, who took one look and sternly told her parents, "Take this girl to the emergency room right now and call a neurologist." A tumor the size of a plum was discovered in Marin's brain. She was horrified, but a surgeon excavated the mass and, after a biopsy, indicated that it was benign. Barely a week later Marin was back in the water.

Confident that it had all been just an awful scare, Matt Morrison relocated to Seattle, where he'd landed a job as the Mariners' pre- and postgame television host. He found a house in the suburbs and figured he'd move the family up from Georgia before the next school year. Marin spent most of the summer of 2005 in the pool in Atlanta. In a Gwinnett County meet she and three of her friends broke county summer league records for the 200-meter medley relay and 200 free relay.

Toward the end of the summer Marin complained again of blurry vision. An MRI showed that the tumor not only had returned but also was growing aggressively, wreathing itself around healthy tissue in the left temporal lobe of Marin's brain. There was no choice but to operate again.

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