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The surgery took place in August 2005. It was exceptionally risky, the family was warned in advance. When Marin came out of the operating room, her parents squeezed her fingers. No response. Doctors performed a tickle test. Nothing. A nerve had been damaged, and the right side of her body was paralyzed. She also had expressive aphasia with speech apraxia: She would have clear thoughts, but when she tried to articulate them, her words would be garbled.
Worse still, the tumor was malignant: anaplastic ganglioglioma. She would have to undergo radiation therapy, but it would only delay the inevitable. A few days earlier Marin had been an elite swimmer with Olympic ambitions. Now she was partly paralyzed, unable to communicate clearly, and she would be lucky simply to live until the next Olympics, three years away.
Her parents and two younger siblings tried to hold it together. Marin was angry, scared, crushed and, at the same time, hopeful and weirdly energized. She struggled with speech but, as stubborn and determined as ever, quickly found a way to get her words out. Her first sentence: "Can I still swim?"
The emotions came in a torrent. Nick Scandone was in his mid-30s, happily married, sailing when he could, surfing and wakeboarding when he couldn't. He was home one Friday night in the summer of 2002 when his doctor called to discuss his nagging back pain. "Um," the doctor said, "do you know who Lou Gehrig was?"
"Sure, a baseball player," said Nick. "Why?"
"Do you know what Lou Gehrig's disease is?"
The doctor explained that Lou Gehrig's disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is a neurodegenerative condition that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. In many cases it does not harm cognitive functions, but it invariably sends the body into a steady, irreversible decline. The brain loses its ability to initiate and control muscle movement; the patient gradually becomes paralyzed and, finally, unable to breathe. There is no cure for ALS; Nick had as few as 18 months to live.
His feelings pinballed from fear to shock to denial to sadness. He and Mary Kate had been trying to conceive a child but decided to stop; they didn't want to have a kid who would grow up without a father. Nick led a sports-oriented life and had a taut, defined physique, including a mean six-pack, to show for it. Before long he wouldn't have the strength to brush his teeth. But ultimately he tapped his inner sailor and turned pragmatic. "I'm here," he told Mary Kate, "so let's make the most of it." They agreed that since time was at a premium, he might as well do what gave him the most pleasure. With his wife's blessing, he quit his job and bought a new boat.
The sports background helped, that was for sure. Marin Morrison's rehab from partial paralysis would have been hard even if she weren't fighting brain cancer. But she applied the same resolve and dedication that she'd showed in the pool. "She had an athlete's fortitude, a toughness that said, 'I'm not just going to sit around and hope,'" says Matt.
In the fall of 2005, while Matt worked in Seattle, Nancy and Marin stayed at the Atlanta Ronald McDonald House. Between rehab sessions Marin had radiation treatments to kill what remnants of the cancer the doctors could find. The younger Morrison children, Camie and Michael, stayed with neighbors in Atlanta. "Looking back, it was a crazy, stressful time," says Nancy, a personal trainer. "But when you're in it, what choice do you have? You go on."