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But doctors hadn't given her long to live, so in April 2006 the foundation sent the entire Morrison family on a Mediterranean cruise—two weeks in the Greek Isles, Italy and Egypt—with a final stop in Paris to see the Eiffel Tower. Afterward, Marin kept swimming, hell-bent on competing in Beijing. In April 2008 she made it to the Paralympic Trials in Minneapolis. Her times had slipped in lockstep with her health. Sometimes she'd swim a few laps, leave the pool to vomit from dizziness and then return. Still, she was able to qualify in the S5 category in the 50 backstroke. Once in, she was allowed to choose additional events, and she opted for the 50 free and the 100 free.
"You know how they say, 'Athletes will themselves'" says Matt. "Marin's qualifying was all will."
The sports background helped, that was for sure. Even as ALS launched its ground campaign—starting with his feet and working its way up his body—Nick Scandone kept his sailor's mentality. He treated his predicament as if he were on the water. He was the boat's skipper. Just as he couldn't control the weather or the strength of the wind, he couldn't control this cruel disease. But, in the same way that a sailor reacted to the elements, he would adjust to his body's changing condition as best he could and keep moving forward.
Nick took Mary Kate and other friends out for cruises. He continued to tutor the Briny Bunch. And he resumed racing. In the summer of 2005 he entered the 2.4-Meter World Championship, a regatta in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Italy, that was open to disabled as well as able-bodied sailors. His legs were too weak for him to use crutches, so with great reluctance he'd recently started using a wheelchair. But in the water, sitting in a one-man boat that was basically a miniature version of an America's Cup craft, he was on equal footing with other sailors. Competing against the best yachtsmen in the world, Nick won the 88-boat regatta. He was named U.S. Sailing's Rolex Yachtsman of the Year. "Luckily Nick picked one sport where being disabled didn't stop you from competing," says Mary Kate. "When Nick sailed, he was free."
Someone told Nick about the Paralympic Games. They were three years away, but if he was still able to sail, he'd qualify for sure, maybe even win a medal. "Right then," says his brother Vince, "it was all about getting to Beijing. He had something to look forward to." Every month he'd lose more weight. Every month his body betrayed him a little more. But day after day he'd go out on the boat, often with one of his first teachers, Pinckney, who volunteered to spearhead Nick's campaign. When other boaters at the club offered sympathy, Nick recoiled. "ALS is keeping me alive," he would say. "A Love of Sailing."
In Paralympic sailing athletes are rated on a scale of 1 to 7, based on mobility. Provided he stayed alive, Nick surely would be a 1 or a 2, the most disabled, by the summer of 2008. That meant he'd be eligible to race in a SKUD 18, a two-person keelboat, paired with a disabled female sailor. He found a partner in Maureen McKinnon-Tucker, an irrepressible mother of two from Massachusetts. In 1995 she had accompanied her husband, an accomplished yachtsman, to a regatta. She had fallen down a sea wall and broken her back, and ever since then she'd been obliged to use a wheelchair.
Nick was the skipper, devising the tactics and determining the route; Maureen was the crew, hoisting and trimming the sails. As they worked to qualify for the Paralympics, however, life kept threatening to capsize them. In December 2007 Nick's mother died of breast cancer, and in January 2008 his sister died of lung disease. That same January, at a Miami regatta, Nick and Maureen were getting ready for a day of practice when Maureen's cellphone chirped. Back in Massachusetts, her two-year-old son, Trent, had been feeling ill. It turned out to be brain cancer.
Maureen agonized over what to do, but she knew this much: It was too late for Nick to replace her. If she decided against competing, he would be ineligible. "Some people say, 'I live to sail,' but in Nick's case he literally lived to sail," she says. "I wasn't going to [deprive him] of his main reason to live."
For nearly a year, accompanied by the U.S. Paralympic sailing coach, Betsy Alison, Maureen shuttled between Massachusetts and California. Two other Paralympic sailors, Scott Whitman and Julia Dorsett, flew to California so Nick and Maureen would have training partners. At the Balboa Yacht Club, more than a few jaws would drop when members saw a cluster of wheelchairs on the dock and two boats carving up the water. "What can you do?" says Maureen. "Life happens, and you try to kick its ass."
As warned, Nick declined steadily. By the summer of 2008 he weighed less than 100 pounds and had lost all function in his legs and more than half in his arms. Nick's friends laughed when NBC aired maudlin vignettes about Olympic athletes who'd overcome adversity. "There was some gymnast who struggled because her friend's aunt stubbed her toe—give me a break!" says Maureen. "What about Nick Scandone, who's struggling just to stay alive?"