As swimmer Marin Morrison and sailor Nick Scandone fought deadly diseases, they mustered all their strength and courage to fulfill a final dream: to compete in the Beijing Paralympics
THE WATER delivered her. Always had, from darn near birth. Marin Morrison would get into the pool, and everything would just make sense. She'd move her arms and legs, and she'd be off, cutting through the water like a speedboat. Marin's parents, Matt and Nancy, chose her name mostly because Matt was raised in Marin County, Calif. But the symbolism wasn't lost on others: Marin, from the Latin "of the sea."
Marin had the good fortune to grow up in Florida, where she could swim year-round. As the other kids in the pool perfected their cannonballs or played Marco Polo, she swam from one end to the other and back. At age six she joined a swim league. When it came time to race, she'd dive in, rocket down her lane, turn around and wait patiently to see who came in second.
Marin had a learning disability, which sometimes made school a struggle for her. But it also imbued her with a capacity for work. She'd spend an hour reading a few pages of a book if that's what it took to understand them. She brought that same sensibility to the pool, practicing and practicing, indifferent to the passage of time.
December 14, 2009
By the time Marin was in fifth grade, Matt had taken a job as an anchor for Fox Sports Net, and the family had moved to Atlanta. Training with the Swim Atlanta team, Marin was on her way to becoming a top national racer in the 100-yard freestyle and 100 backstroke. Once, in the fall of 2003, Swim Atlanta coach Chris Davis asked Marin, then 13, to race for 25 yards underwater against Amanda Weir, a 17-year-old hotshot. Deploying her superior dolphin kick, Marin won by more than a body length. Less than a year later, Weir would win two silver medals at the Athens Olympics.
"Marin had all the tools," says Davis. "Speed. Desire. Coachability. And she could kick [like] Natalie Coughlin. We're pretty much talking unlimited potential."
Marin's bedroom doubled as a repository for trophies and ribbons. She was in eighth grade when the college recruiting letters started filling the family mailbox. With her textbook streamlines and uncommonly smooth technique, says Davis, "there's no doubt in my mind she would have been at the 2008 Olympic Trials."
For all her success, though, Marin never developed a true passion for competition. It drove her dad nuts. "I'd say, 'I can't tell if you won or lost—how come you don't have more fire?'" says Matt, who played baseball at UCLA. "Marin would shrug. If she did well by her own standards, that was enough."
Friendly but reserved—sometimes she lamented that she wasn't part of the popular crowd—Marin walked the halls of Collins Hill High in Suwanee, Ga., giving no hint that she was one of the best athletes in the school. As a freshman, in 2005, she clocked school-record times of 52.86 in the 100-yard free and 1:01.45 in the 100 back, and she was a favorite to win the Georgia state Class AAAAA championship in the 100 freestyle. With a few weeks left in the season, though, she complained of searing headaches. At the state meet she finished third in the 100 free and 12th in the 100 back, and at a Swim Atlanta event afterward she vomited on the pool deck. Another time she said she had double vision. She felt sick even after entering the water.
She was disappointed by her performance in the state meet but not crushed. She'd done her best, especially considering that she was sick. She figured that she'd rest, swim over the summer and then win everything as a sophomore.
The water delivered him. Always had, from darn near birth. Nick Scandone was a conventional Southern California kid. Growing up in comfort in Orange County in the '70s and '80s, he liked beaches, bikes and baseball. Given his slight physical build, any ambitions of being an athlete perished early. But they were revived when, at age nine, he ventured into the Balboa Yacht Club in Corona Del Mar. His mom, an assertive travel-agency owner, presented him with a choice in the months before fourth grade: "Summer school or sailing school." The decision was easy. At Balboa he met Mike Pinckney, an older instructor Nick wanted to emulate. And he discovered the joys of climbing into an eight-foot Sabot dinghy and slicing through the water.
It was a simple craft made of fiberglass and sporting a single sail. But maneuvering a boat wherever he pleased fed something inside Nick. He liked relying on his intuition to gauge the wind, the tide, the currents. He liked taking calculated risks, tacking to an area no one else in the fleet had thought to go. And the rhythms of sailing fit his measured personality. "In other sports you might get jacked up and rely on adrenaline for those bursts," says Vince Scandone, Nick's older brother. "Sailing is the opposite: You need to be patient and calm and methodical. That was Nick."
Before long he was winning every race he entered. Not that he told anyone. Apart from being a profoundly happy kid, he was profoundly modest, preferring to talk about girls or surfing or the Angels baseball team than about his feats in a motorless boat. He had his land persona and his water persona, his land friends and his water friends, and he took pains to keep them separate.
Nick went to college at UC Irvine. It was a fine school. It was near home. It was near the beach. Above all, it had a sailing program. By the time he graduated, in 1990, he had been an All-America and a member of a national championship team. Though sinewy-strong from pulling all those ropes, Nick still wasn't physically imposing, maybe 5'8", 150 pounds. It was his superior sailing cortex that won him so many races. Time and again he'd sense something no one else sensed—an incoming breeze, a subtle change in the current—and act. Before anyone else caught on, Nick was leading by 15 lengths.
He was a favorite to make the U.S. sailing team in the two-man 470 Class for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. But then he smudged the line between cool and careless. He bickered with his crew. A few weeks before the trials he went surfing and was knocked off his board by a giant wave. He came away unscathed, but his behavior bespoke something other than a full commitment to sailing. He finished second in the trials and missed the spot on the team. For the first time anyone could remember, Nick wasn't smiling.
He was 26 and so disappointed in himself that he took a break from competitive sailing. He got jobs selling pizza ovens and then advertisements for a sailing publication. The work paid the bills but didn't exactly rouse his passion. He married but was divorced within a couple of years.
Eventually he began competing again. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but his life got better. He began racing on weekends and discovered that his sixth sense in a boat hadn't deserted him. He volunteered to coach a group of female sailors his mom's age who called themselves the Briny Bunch. At Balboa he met a blonde Midwestern transplant, Mary Kate Stoffregen, and took her sailing on their first date. Two years later they got married. For their honeymoon they sailed around the British Virgin Islands.
Not long after that Nick began experiencing back pain. It was annoying, "a pain in the ass even though it's in my back," he'd joke. Then it really started to hurt. He assumed it was either bad genes—his mom had needed back and neck surgery—or the unfortunate legacy of spending countless hours sitting in a little boat. He went to a chiropractor, figuring he'd need his spine realigned if he wanted to return to elite racing.
The emotions came in a torrent. That blurry vision Marin Morrison had been experiencing? A couple of weeks after the state meet she visited an eye doctor, who took one look and sternly told her parents, "Take this girl to the emergency room right now and call a neurologist." A tumor the size of a plum was discovered in Marin's brain. She was horrified, but a surgeon excavated the mass and, after a biopsy, indicated that it was benign. Barely a week later Marin was back in the water.
Confident that it had all been just an awful scare, Matt Morrison relocated to Seattle, where he'd landed a job as the Mariners' pre- and postgame television host. He found a house in the suburbs and figured he'd move the family up from Georgia before the next school year. Marin spent most of the summer of 2005 in the pool in Atlanta. In a Gwinnett County meet she and three of her friends broke county summer league records for the 200-meter medley relay and 200 free relay.
Toward the end of the summer Marin complained again of blurry vision. An MRI showed that the tumor not only had returned but also was growing aggressively, wreathing itself around healthy tissue in the left temporal lobe of Marin's brain. There was no choice but to operate again.
The surgery took place in August 2005. It was exceptionally risky, the family was warned in advance. When Marin came out of the operating room, her parents squeezed her fingers. No response. Doctors performed a tickle test. Nothing. A nerve had been damaged, and the right side of her body was paralyzed. She also had expressive aphasia with speech apraxia: She would have clear thoughts, but when she tried to articulate them, her words would be garbled.
Worse still, the tumor was malignant: anaplastic ganglioglioma. She would have to undergo radiation therapy, but it would only delay the inevitable. A few days earlier Marin had been an elite swimmer with Olympic ambitions. Now she was partly paralyzed, unable to communicate clearly, and she would be lucky simply to live until the next Olympics, three years away.
Her parents and two younger siblings tried to hold it together. Marin was angry, scared, crushed and, at the same time, hopeful and weirdly energized. She struggled with speech but, as stubborn and determined as ever, quickly found a way to get her words out. Her first sentence: "Can I still swim?"
The emotions came in a torrent. Nick Scandone was in his mid-30s, happily married, sailing when he could, surfing and wakeboarding when he couldn't. He was home one Friday night in the summer of 2002 when his doctor called to discuss his nagging back pain. "Um," the doctor said, "do you know who Lou Gehrig was?"
"Sure, a baseball player," said Nick. "Why?"
"Do you know what Lou Gehrig's disease is?"
The doctor explained that Lou Gehrig's disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is a neurodegenerative condition that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. In many cases it does not harm cognitive functions, but it invariably sends the body into a steady, irreversible decline. The brain loses its ability to initiate and control muscle movement; the patient gradually becomes paralyzed and, finally, unable to breathe. There is no cure for ALS; Nick had as few as 18 months to live.
His feelings pinballed from fear to shock to denial to sadness. He and Mary Kate had been trying to conceive a child but decided to stop; they didn't want to have a kid who would grow up without a father. Nick led a sports-oriented life and had a taut, defined physique, including a mean six-pack, to show for it. Before long he wouldn't have the strength to brush his teeth. But ultimately he tapped his inner sailor and turned pragmatic. "I'm here," he told Mary Kate, "so let's make the most of it." They agreed that since time was at a premium, he might as well do what gave him the most pleasure. With his wife's blessing, he quit his job and bought a new boat.
The sports background helped, that was for sure. Marin Morrison's rehab from partial paralysis would have been hard even if she weren't fighting brain cancer. But she applied the same resolve and dedication that she'd showed in the pool. "She had an athlete's fortitude, a toughness that said, 'I'm not just going to sit around and hope,'" says Matt.
In the fall of 2005, while Matt worked in Seattle, Nancy and Marin stayed at the Atlanta Ronald McDonald House. Between rehab sessions Marin had radiation treatments to kill what remnants of the cancer the doctors could find. The younger Morrison children, Camie and Michael, stayed with neighbors in Atlanta. "Looking back, it was a crazy, stressful time," says Nancy, a personal trainer. "But when you're in it, what choice do you have? You go on."
In November, Nancy and the kids moved to Seattle, and Marin saw a team of pediatric oncologists at the Children's Hospital. The doctors scanned the MRIs and called Marin and her parents for a summit. "There's nothing we can do; nothing will stem the growth of this cancer," they said flatly. "Get your affairs in order, and enjoy your last few months together."
Marin turned to her parents, who were in tears. "Don't believe 'em," she said in her halting speech. "I'll keep fighting."
Says Nancy, "You saw the way she handled it and you thought, How can I do anything but keep my strength and courage up?"
Marin, now 15, fought the tumor with any weapon she could find. Holistic medicine. A macrobiotic diet. Exercise. Prayer. She swallowed as many as 100 pills a day. She read alternately from the Bible and from the canon of Lance Armstrong. She forced herself to swig puna noni juice, a supposedly healing concoction from Hawaii. She entered a clinical trial sponsored by St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. It's hard to know where to apportion the credit, but for more than a year the tumor shrank.
And there was the water. The right side of her body might have been paralyzed, but in her natural habitat Marin retrieved a one-armed training drill from her healthier days and improvised a stroke that resembled rowing with one oar. Using her left arm and leg, she piloted her body up and down the pool. Even cosmetically she was more comfortable in the water. On land she sometimes felt self-conscious wearing a knit hat to conceal the scars on her head. In the pool, well, everyone wore a swim cap.
Marin was enrolled in a homebound academic program at nearby Eastlake High, and she joined the school's swim team. Because of her speech she couldn't communicate with her teammates as well as she'd have liked, but she was thrilled to be part of a team again. She competed on the jayvee and occasionally on the varsity.
Kiko Van Zandt, a rehab nurse at the Children's Hospital, moonlighted as coach of the Seattle Shadow Seals, a local team for disabled swimmers. At Van Zandt's prodding, Marin entered a race in Michigan at the end of 2006. Swimmers were put into 10 classes, based on the severity of their disability; as an S5 (in the middle range of functional ability), Marin set two national records. Van Zandt told her that with those times she could qualify for the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, which would follow the Summer Olympics.
About a year earlier, the Make-A-Wish Foundation had contacted Marin to ask if there was something special she'd like to do in her final months. After much prodding she said she'd like to travel: "Go to Beijing."
"Great," the representative said. "Maybe we can get tickets for the Olympics...."
"Not to watch," Marin explained. "To compete as a swimmer for the U.S.A."
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?"
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."
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."
He'd won the gold medal in sailing. Maybe it wasn't quite as he'd imagined it in those boyhood renderings, but it was just as sweet.
When Nick returned to the U.S., he was feted as a conquering hero. At John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, Calif., he was met by supporters chanting, "U-S-A! U-S-A!" But both he and Marin were worsening by the day. The cancer had spread through Marin's brain, and by November she was sleeping as many as 22 hours a day. Nick, weighing less than 90 pounds, continued to use the breathing machine he had been on for a while and, unlike Marin, had to turn down an invitation to the White House. Having achieved their goals of getting to Beijing, they set more modest benchmarks. Get to Thanksgiving. Get to Christmas. Get to the New Year.
They never met and might not even have been aware of each other. One was an 18-year-old woman, the other a 42-year-old man. One was a swimmer, the other a sailor. Their relatives have never met, either. Still, when they recall Marin or Nick, the stories ring with the same themes. They talk about the financial toll of terminal illness—even with the blessing of health insurance. About how, even in the bleakest times, their faith in humanity was affirmed. About how the "Olympic spirit" is no fiction. But most of all they talk about how a love of water can make someone unsinkable.
Marin Morrison died on Jan. 2, 2009.
So did Nick Scandone.
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For a photo gallery of the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games, go to SI.com/photo
"Marin had all the tools," says Davis. "Speed. Desire. We're talking unlimited potential."
Time and again Nick would sense something—a breeze, a change in the current—and act.
"Marin had an athlete's fortitude that said, 'I'm not just going to sit around and hope,'" says Matt.
Nick's body was spent, but mentally he was as sharp as ever. His final race doubled as a victory lap.