Asked that summer how he was holding up, Nick always had the same response: "I can last to Beijing."
Just getting to China was a challenge. After Marin earned a spot on the U.S. Paralympic team, her health took a drastic turn for the worse; in hopes of stopping intracranial bleeding, doctors in Seattle performed a fourth surgery on her on May 2, 2008, and discovered that the cancer was ruthlessly attacking her brain stem. She spent six weeks in Children's Hospital, often in incapacitating pain. By now she was confined full time to a wheelchair and wore an eye patch to help her keep her equilibrium.
Marin was too sick to fly to Beijing with the U.S. Paralympic delegation, so the family traveled to China on its own. The team provided airfare for Marin and Nancy (who went as her daughter's care assistant), but Matt had to buy tickets for himself and the other two kids. The Morrisons were already buried in medical bills, but this wasn't the time to economize. "This was her dream," says Nancy. "How were we not going to be there for that?"
Matt's and Nancy's families helped out financially, and their church held a fund-raiser. The goodwill rippled out from there in concentric circles. Other Seattle churches held silent auctions and benefit dinners. Former neighbors in Georgia started a foundation, Wave of Courage, to help pay the Morrisons' medical bills and support other young disabled athletes. Seattle neighbors the Morrisons had barely had time to meet knocked on the door asking what they could do. Anonymous donations appeared in the mailbox. The U.S. Olympic Committee put up the family at the Beijing Hilton when it was clear that Marin was too ill to stay in the athletes' village. "My religious faith was shaken to the core, and I'm still reassessing my relationship with God," says Matt, "but my belief in humans is out of this world. People are awesome."
Which pretty much echoed the sentiments of Team Scandone. Like Marin, Nick relied on friends but also on the kindness of strangers. The Briny Bunch held a benefit for their former coach. As word of Nick's campaign spread, first through the club and then around the yachting community, the donations poured in. Equipment. Practice boats. Air miles so Nick could fly first class. One anonymous donor wrote a check for $5,000. The young sons of family friends filled coffee cans with change. "Remember, with ALS, your body goes but your mind stays sharp," says Vince. "Nick felt so much pressure not to let these people down."
In late August, Nick, Vince and Mike Pinckney flew from Southern California to Denver and then to Colorado Springs, where they met the rest of the Paralympic delegation. The team flew to San Francisco, then to Beijing and finally to Qingdao, the port city where the sailing event would be held. It was a grueling odyssey for Vince and Mike. For Nick, easily fatigued and prone to injury given how little muscle and fatty tissue padded his brittle bones, it was something resembling hell. "You just knew how much pain he had to be in," says Vince. "When you asked him, he'd say, 'I'm fine. How about you?'"
The first official Paralympic Games were held in Rome in 1960, the same year as the Summer Olympics. Roughly 400 participants, all disabled by spinal injuries, competed in eight sports. Since then the Paralympics (sometimes mistaken for the Special Olympics) have grown exponentially. Befitting its motto, Spirit in Motion, the movement is now open to athletes beset by a variety of physical and visual impairments. The 2008 Paralympics drew nearly 4,000 athletes from 146 countries, who converged on Beijing to compete in 19 events.
The games were officially consecrated on Sept. 6, when the Paralympic flame was lit by torchbearer Hou Bin, a Chinese high jumper missing his left leg, who pulled himself and his wheelchair up to the cauldron by a series of ropes. The Olympics had ended two weeks earlier, but the Paralympics were anything but an afterthought. For the citizens of Beijing, they were especially significant. At the Olympics most of the tickets had been disbursed to corporations, national delegations, foreign tourists and other moneyed types. The Paralympics marked the first time the average Chinese citizen could set foot inside the gleaming Bird's Nest and Water Cube. The events crackled with energy, and the stands were filled to near capacity, echoing the vibe of the "real" Olympics but with a far more democratic overtone.
When Marin emerged for her race, she was jolted by the crowd, those thousands of strangers going nuts. Matt wheeled her out and gently transferred her from the chair to the deck for her first event.
She was racing in the 100-meter freestyle, but she swam on her back because that made her less dizzy. With Matt at poolside and Nancy and Kiko Van Zandt shrieking from the stands, the race went off. One by one the competitors, all of them swimming the crawl, made it to the finish. Except Marin. On her back in lane 7, she struggled through the water. "Honestly," says Van Zandt, "I was just praying for her to finish."