Pure Joy

A Special Olympics sailing program is as satisfying for the participants as it is for the organizers
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Special athlete JC Maimone steers Third Encounter while coach Vicki  Thompson provides guidance.

Special athlete JC Maimone steers Third Encounter while coach Vicki Thompson provides guidance.

Retirees Peter and Carol Andrews of Middletown, New Jersey, call themselves “too sailors”—they don’t sail when it’s too hot, too cold, too windy or too calm. And yet, on this night, when the sun is beating down and the air is completely still, they are intent on going out because they have guests who can’t wait to get on the water.

One is JC Maimone. He’s 34 years old, and he’s worked as a door greeter and food prepper at a local Applebee’s for 15 years. JC has Down syndrome and, as his mother, Maureen Maimone tells me, “He lives for Tuesdays in the summer.”

That’s when the Atlantic Highlands Yacht Club Special Olympics Sailing program hits the water. In its 25th year, the program is unique because it’s noncompetitive.

The Andrewses joined this year. “We felt it was a good time to give back,” Peter says. “When you see how special these people are, you have to get involved.”

JC has been sailing with the program for 18 years and, like many sailors, is obsessed with the weather. Asked about the evening forecast, he raises his chin like an old sage and confidently declares, “It’s gonna be sunny with light winds.”

This evening, four boats, including the Andrewses’ 2005 Jeanneau 49 DS, Third Encounter, will take nine athletes across Sandy Hook Bay for a two-hour sail. Each boat requires an owner plus a coach for each athlete.

After unfurling Third Encounter’s sails, Peter offers athlete Dana Rafferty, who also has Down syndrome, the helm. As she slips behind the wheel, she takes on a pirate’s persona. “Arrrgghh, eat my dust baby,” she says, forming a pistol with her thumb and index finger. Then, she smiles.

There is little wind, so we motorsail. The athletes don’t care. While he tails the jib sheet, Peter asks Andrew Ricci, who has a chromosomal abnormality, to push the button that powers the electric winch.

Andrew doesn’t talk much, but with a charming smile, dark eyes and movie star dimples, he is simply joyful. When he gets his turn behind one of Third Encounter’s two wheels, his grin seems to stretch from gunwale to gunwale.

Meanwhile, JC entertains everyone with one-liners. Besides a fascination with the weather, he also loves people’s hair. “How come your hair is so gorgeous?” he asks Carol with total sincerity. Aware that her hair is not at its best, she bursts out in laughter. JC is totally at ease. He’s leaned back against the cabin top with his arms spread to port and starboard. He behaves like a yacht owner who wants his guests to enjoy themselves. He tells volunteer coach Vicki Thompson, “Vicki, you need to relax more.”

Thompson says she became a coach because she had family members with special needs. “It’s the highlight of my week,” she says about the Tuesday night sails. “I get out of my car and I hear, ‘Hello, Vicki. I love you,’ and I love them back. I get to go sailing and be with these beautiful people.”

Dana starts singing Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain.” JC loves music, too, especially Billy Joel’s, but tonight it’s all about Cyndi Lauper. “Girls just want to have fun,” he croons in response to Dana. Then, he turns to the crew and says, “Cyndi Lauper is a total babe.”

We all laugh. People with Down syndrome are open with their thoughts. JC doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body.

The sea breeze kicks up. The sun slides behind a cloud. The air temperature is perfect. JC is back at the helm. Third Encounter heels a little more as bubbles appear in her wake. Peter announces we’re doing 8 knots.

It’s not too hot or too calm. It’s pure joy. 

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue.

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