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The crowd's roar thickened. This mass of strangers on the other side of the world didn't know Marin's backstory. They didn't know that a few years earlier she could cover 100 meters in barely 58 seconds. They didn't know that, were it not for some poison at the cellular level, she might well have swum this same event two weeks earlier in the Olympics.
All they knew was what they saw: an 18-year-old girl flailing in lane 7 but determined to finish. They yelled and screamed and some even banged cowbells. The fans cheered louder and waved their countries' flags harder. She finally touched the wall in a time of who-the-hell-cares. By then the applause level in the Water Cube rivaled anything Michael Phelps had heard there.
"It was like Marin's wedding day," Nancy recalls. "Everything you could hope for." Matt helped Marin out of the pool. Behind a red, white and blue eye patch, she smiled. "You did it!" gushed Matt.
"I did it?" she asked, dizzy and confused. Then she looked around, heard the noise and soaked it up. "I did it."
In Qingdao, Nick and Mike spent several days getting the SKUD 18 boat in order. As Nick's condition continued to worsen, Mike made new tweaks and adjustments. He modified the steering system and installed a voice box so Nick wouldn't have to expend much energy to speak. Maureen arrived with her daughter and husband in tow; her son, his cancer in remission, stayed home. Worrying that Nick might tire, Maureen and Mike kept in-water preparations to a minimum.
While most other Paralympic athletes toured China and reveled in the experience, Nick headed to his hotel room. Vince Scandone helped feed his brother, kept him hydrated and was careful not to let him shake anyone's hand for fear of germs. Then Mary Kate arrived to help as well. "We were about one thing and one thing only: helping Nick conserve energy," she says. "That was it."
On the first day of racing, Vince wheeled Nick to the dock, transferred him out of his chair and gently placed him in his skipper's seat. It was hot, but the wind was only 3.5 knots. With Nick seated in the stern and Maureen toward the bow, their boat won three of the first four races. As soon as the races were over, Nick was sent directly to the hotel to rest. He forced himself to eat, often using a feeding tube, and mostly slept.
Nick's body was spent—buttoning a shirt took the upper limit of his strength—but mentally he was as sharp as ever. And he still knew the water, anticipating currents and seeing opportunities that eluded everyone else. As Maureen worked with him, their boat won two more races. By the last day it was mathematically impossible for them to lose. "You don't have to race," the coaches told him. He waved them off.
"We all knew," recalls Mary Kate, "this was going to be the last time he'd go on the water."
His final race doubled as a victory lap. The boat was covered with red, white and blue decals, U.S. flags and banners and burgees from the various yacht clubs that had helped make it all possible. Next to him in the boat Nick had placed a photo of his late mother; Maureen kept a lock of her son's hair in her life jacket. "It's been such a long road," he said afterward. "It's emotionally overwhelming for me to finally realize my goal."