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All the attributes of a champion

All the attributes of a champion

Nick Scandone is a champion sailor who embodies a message we should all hear: Cherish life, appreciate what you have, don’t take anything for granted.

Scandone was recently named Rolex Yachtsman of the Year by a panel of sailing writers and editors, which I had the honor of sitting on. (Sally Barkow was named Yachtswoman of the Year).

What makes Scandone’s selection different from those former champions (and they include such top guns as Dennis Conner, Ted Turner, Paul Cayard and others) is the fact that he is the first disabled sailor to win the honor. Scandone has a progressive neurodegenerative disease known as ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is not the kind of diagnosis you want to hear.

But as ALS has closed some doors for the southern California native who used to surf before college classes and sail in the afternoon, it has opened others. “Disabled sailing has allowed me to have a second chance at sailing,” says Scandone, 40, of Fountain Valley, Calif. “These are some of the friendliest, kindest people I have ever met. It’s been a great experience.”

The sailor says he intends to use the exposure of the Rolex title to shine a brighter light on disabled sailing and ALS. “If anything, I’d like to use the award to bring out the fact that disabled sailing is one of the most competitive forms of sailing I’ve ever done,” he says. “Sometimes, people perceive the disabled athlete as a gimmick. That they’re really not athletes. But it’s really just the opposite.”

Scandone beat out eight others for the honor, including two sailors who won world titles last year, and a third who was very strong at the national and regional level.

The panelists knew that Scandone didn’t want a sympathy vote, and I don’t believe he got one. The California sailor earned the Rolex honor based on his 2005 sailing resume, with the high point being the 2.4 Meter Open World Championship in Italy, where he beat 86 other sailors, including seven former world champions. About two-thirds of the competitors were able-bodied.

“It was a great season,” he says. “This will be something I will always remember.”

The 2.4s (which evolved from the mini-12s) are well-suited for disabled sailors, given that all lines are led to a console located in front of the skipper, and there is both foot and hand steering. These 14-foot one-person keelboats also are virtually impossible to capsize.

Scandone says the class levels the playing field between able-bodied and disabled sailors since the emphasis is mostly on sail trim, strategy and steering, not body weight and physical prowess.

Scandone was diagnosed with ALS in spring 2002. He had gone to the doctor’s complaining of back pain, and the eventual ALS discovery struck him like a bolt out of the clear. “Of course, I didn’t believe it at first,” Scandone says, “and I still have trouble believing it at times.”

He also learned the cruel facts about the disease. There is no cure or treatment at this time. The average life expectancy for a patient is two to five years from the time of diagnosis. Up to 10 percent of those with ALS live more than 10 years.

At the present time, Scandone can’t move his feet. “From my knees down, I’m basically paralyzed,” he says. The disease has also started to affect his hands, and his dominant right hand is now weaker than his left. He is losing muscle and growing thinner. The once lean 150-pound 470 sailor now weighs about 110 pounds. He had been using leg braces and cane to walk, although he recently twisted a knee, which forced him into a wheelchair.

But he remains optimistic. With the help of Mary Kate, his wife, he is following a homeopathic approach to treatment, taking lots of vitamins and supplements, which they believe is helping. He also is working with a specialist at the University of California at Irvine.

ALS has affected Scandone’s sailing career in ways that he never anticipated. He is once again sailing full time, something he hasn’t done since competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team in the early 1990s.

Scandone grew up sailing at the Balboa Yacht Club near Newport Beach, Calif., and attended UC Irvine, where he won the Collegiate Nationals in 1988. He competed for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in 470s, but his effort fell short (he did win the 470 North Americans in 1991). After that, he got married, began working full time and sailed on the weekends. Now, more than a decade later, he is mounting another Olympic campaign. He has set his sights on the 2008 Paralympic Games in China.

He certainly has no intention of slowing down. I recently spoke with Scandone by phone from Perth, Australia, where he was competing in the 2006 ALCOA IFDS Disabled World Championships.

“It doesn’t affect the mind at all,” says Scandone. “That’s the good part. And it can’t touch your soul. You just deal with the cards you’re dealt. … Sometimes things happen for a reason and make you stronger.”

Those are the words of a champion.