Sailing is Nothing Like Poker

39-year-old Nick Scandone struggles as he wheels himself across Balboa Yacht Club’s asphalt boat yard.  He meets his boat, a single-handed 14-foot vessel with the bottom smoothed from years of wet sanding and waxing.  This boat, the Olympic Class 2.4 meter (2.4mR), creates a level playing field for all sailors, which is a perfect match for Scandone who was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gerhig’s Disease, in 2002.  In the last three months Scandone has been confined to a wheelchair, which has created an endless amount of difficulties that weren’t there before.  After a half an hour challenge of getting dressed Scandone is finally ready to sail.  His brother uses the crane to lift his boat off the trailer and into the water.  He then lifts Nick into his arms out of his wheelchair and down into his boat.  One would never know this man was a world-class 2.4mR champion until his boat hits the water.  He sits low in the boat near the keel with all of the adjustment lines right in front of him.  He never once while sailing has to move from this forward facing position.  The remarkable part is that every 2.4mR is like this, where weight and strength are the least of factors.  Intelligence, tactics, and strategy are key aspects of this boat.  This is why Scandone is a champion.  Because of his advanced ALS the strength in his legs has deteriorated and his arms aren’t too far behind.  This worries him because the Olympic Trials are in October of 2007 and he’s not sure how much longer he will have to sail.  He’s not only in a race for the Olympics but a race for his life.

Scandone grew up in Huntington Beach and developed a fondness for sailing at a young age through Balboa Yacht Club’s Junior Program.  Scandone was that kid that everyone knew.  He was the tall lanky one, quiet but incredibly funny and generous.  You saw him messing around with his friends at lunch in the middle of the quad playing hacky sack or picking up on the freshman girls.  His quick smile and small gap between his two front teeth made him imperfect but relatable.  And his quiet, reserved manner has served him well the past forty years.

Beginning sailing in the Junior Program “was something [he] took for granted as a kid.”  But it seemed to foster a deep passion for the sport, even if he didn’t know it then.  His passion for the ocean was stunted in high school, however, due to Fountain Valley High’s lack of sailing team.  He resorted to weekend regattas through his yacht club and concentrated more on his high school’s golf team.

Scandone attended Orange Coast College for two years after high school.  There he rekindled his passion for sailing and then moved on to the University of California, Irvine.  Where he helped his team win the Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association North American Dinghy Championships in 1988, the highest of competition in collegiate sailing.  Getting to Nationals requires a team to win their district championships.  In Scandone’s years at UCI, they won their district championship four years in a row.
After having the time of his life in college and, amazingly, getting to go to nationals four times, Scandone graduated in January of 1990 and thus began his 470 Olympic campaign with crew Chris Raab.  A 470 is a double-handed Olympic Class boat with two sails and a spinnaker, a larger sail made for going downwind, a larger version of the 2.4mR he sails now.  Scandone, again, looked like a favorite going into the Olympic Trials, the qualifying races which decide who will actually represent the United States.  He appeared to be tough to beat after his most notable win at that point at the 470 North Americans in 1991 with nearly a 60 boat fleet.  However, Scandone just barely missed his chance for the Olympics at the Trials and subsequently gave up the dream and resorted once again to becoming a weekend sailor.  The campaign had sucked his bank account dry.  He knew now that he “had to go out and find a place to try and make some money.” So, graduating with a Social Science degree he went into sales and marketing for a restaurant equipment company.  He genuinely enjoyed his job for the independence it allowed, “If you made some good sales you weren’t clocked in anywhere so you could just go to the beach and hang out and go surfing or something if you wanted to.  I kind of always worked to live, I didn’t live to work.”

In 2002 Nick Scandone was diagnosed with ALS.  This disease damages the spinal cord pathways and motor neurons, which causes the motor neurons to shrink and disappear so the muscles don’t receive the message that they need to move.  It mainly affects voluntary movement and preserves the mind.  Muscles become smaller and weaker, which is Scandone’s main concern.  Never being a big guy to begin with, losing forty pounds was quite an issue.  His leg muscles have deteriorated over the years.  Scandone describes the deterioration, “It just slowly worked up my legs and it has worked on my arms.  I basically went from 150 pounds down to like 110.  It has just been a slow deterioration.  But along the way, I’m doing a bunch of sailing.”  And it seemed as though many of his statements are topped off with an optimistic cherry above a messy messy sundae.

rolex_awardBut he has truly made the best of it.  With just his sun-bleached capped head poking out of the small cockpit of his 2.4metre as he makes his way up the course ahead of the rest, he scans the course for wind shifts, puffs, and layline.  After being diagnosed, Scandone lived in denial for about a year, until the deterioration really began to show.  In October of 2003, he became restless after coming to terms with his disability and quitting his job, “I was getting a little bored and I’m like ah, let’s see what this disabled sailing’s all about.”  After emailing US Sailing’s disabled sailing branch, Scandone got three emails back, everyone incredibly interested in him reentering the sport.  So, in January of 2004 he made his way to Miami to compete in his first regatta after being diagnosed.

US Sailing’s disabled sailing branch set him up to charter boat in Miami and sent him on his way.  He sailed in the 2.4mR class there and placed third, just behind the current US Paralympic representative and another world champion.  This was where his interest was planted.  He continued to race and found a fondness with the boat mainly because, “So as long as you have upper body physical abilities to do everything, the boat’s more of a thinking sailors boat and less of an athlete’s type of boat.  And that’s what makes it totally cool to me because I can go out and sail against anybody I know be it Mike Pinckney, Jon Pinckney, any of the guys I know and compete against them where in any other sport right now, what I would call at least some sort of physical sport, you know nothing like playing poker or something.  Any other sport, there’s no way I can physically compete with you know able-bodied normal people I guess you would say.”  Scandone went onto show that this was so true at the 2.4mR Word Championship in September of 2005 off Elba Island, Italy.  Scandone beat everyone in the 88-boat fleet with 53 of who were able-bodied and three Paralympic medalists amid the 35 disabled sailors.  He even beat the boat’s designer, Peter Norlin, builder Imma Bjorndahl, and sail makers Stellan Berlin and Rickard Bjurstrom.  He is the third sailor in the world within past 10 years with a physical disability to win this championship.

A few months later Scandone was voted as the Rolex Yachtsman of the Year.  This award was started in 1961 to recognize sailors for their on-the-water achievements.  Past recipients of this award include America’s Cup Skipper Dennis Conner, and 2004 470 Olympic gold medal winners Paul Foerster and Kevin Burnham.  The nominees are voted by US Sailing members and in 2005 the board of directors and well known sailing journalists selected Scandone over 8 other world class able bodied sailors.  Scandone looks at it humbly and attributes a lot of his recent accomplishments to contracting the disease, “This whole thing has been a bitter sweet thing.  I was obviously a little bummed out when they told me that I have some sort of neurological disease.  But the reality of it is, is that it has brought me back into competitive racing again and I’ve gotten to travel all over the world.  Just in the last couple of years I’ve been to Australia, Denmark, Germany, Italy, all around Florida and Chicago, Maine and I’ve just been doing a lot of traveling.  And I wouldn’t have been able to do that without somehow getting this disease.”

Making the Olympics has been Scandone’s goal when both able bodied and disabled.  This dream he will not allow to be cut short by his physical ability.  He knows he has the intellect and skill to make the Olympics, he is now just looking to spare some time, “This time around I only realistically have only one shot to do it because of the type of condition I have.  I’m just hoping my body holds up just to give me the opportunity to compete in 2008.”

Originally Published by myself May 22nd, 2006


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