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To his final breath, a winner

The sports pages are daily exercises in tributes to courage, where stories gush over the heroics of head-on tackles and nerve-wrenching 20-foot putts.

There is courage, and then there is Nick Scandone.

The day after New Year’s, Scandone died. He was 42. In the Beijing Paralympics four months ago, Scandone and his sailing crew, Maureen McKinnon-Tucker, won the gold medal in the SKUD-18 Class.

Neither Bob Costas nor NBC was there. Nor was the Los Angeles Times or the Boston Globe, even though Scandone is from Fountain Valley and McKinnon-Tucker is from Marblehead, Mass.

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But people who sail, or follow the sport closely, knew a story when they saw one.

Scandone was a world-class, able-bodied sailor when he was in his 20s and early 30s. At age 36, he was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. When he took part in the Paralympics, he was about two years beyond the normal life expectancy of somebody with ALS, a disease characterized by progressive muscle degeneration that leads to fatal paralysis. McKinnon-Tucker, 43, is a paraplegic. She injured her spine when she fell 13 feet off an ocean retaining wall in 1995.

In the SKUD-18, all their sailing could be done by hand.

On the last day of racing, Scandone and McKinnon-Tucker drove their wheelchairs to the boat, even though they had been told the night before that they had accumulated more than enough points to win.

“The coach of the Canadian team walked up to us,” McKinnon-Tucker said, “and kind of casually said that his calculations had us so far ahead that nobody could catch us for the gold. He was telling us we had won.

“I remember rolling over to Nick, hugging him, and starting to cry. He did too. I only saw him cry twice while we were in China. The other time was the first day, when we got to the boat and he looked out and said, ‘I made it.’ ”

On that last day, the two sailors were lifted in and harnessed into position once again. They set sail in a race they hadn’t needed to run but did so out of respect for their competitors, and finished second.

Soon, something even more memorable happened.

Sailors, crew, support staff, spectators -- especially people who knew the story -- gathered along a sea wall as the boats returned. Scandone and McKinnon-Tucker, flying the American flag and flags of their respective yacht clubs, sailed two victory laps along the wall as people applauded and cried.

Scandone’s wife, Mary Kate, has the scene indelibly painted in her memory.

“It was his farewell race,” she said. “He knew this would be his last time on the water.”

Nearby were Scandone’s coach, Mike Pinckney, and his brother, Vincent “Rocky” Scandone, who served, among other things, as the crew’s muscle, as well as moral support.

“They’d lift him into the boat,” Mary Kate said, “and they’d watch them sail away. Then they’d stand there and shake their heads. It was a miracle. Every day was a miracle.”

Mary Kate paused, composed herself, and added: “The whole thing was very bittersweet. He won. It was over. Now, in my mind, I knew he was coming home to die.”

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When she married Scandone 10 years ago, Mary Kate had a husband full of life. He was an active businessman, a sales director for an Orange County company that makes wood-fired ovens, and a man in love with the outdoors.

He grew up near the water in Fountain Valley, started sailing as a youngster, won several national championships and just missed making the U.S. sailing team for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. He also surfed, fished and played golf. He was good at all those sports.

“I think he had something like four holes in one,” Mary Kate said.

They took their honeymoon in the Virgin Islands and rented a sailboat. She was expecting a leisurely, romantic ride.

“Every boat that came nearby, he wanted to race,” she said.

She brought cheese and crackers and French sausage along for their sail.

“He didn’t have a fishing rod,” she said, “but he had some line and a hook, and he used the French sausage for bait. There were people in boats around us, fishing with good equipment, but Nick was the only one catching anything. One of the other guys came over to find out how he was doing that. I don’t think anybody else had thought about French sausage for bait.”

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In 2002, after enduring constant back pain, Scandone went to a doctor and eventually got a phone call, asking whether he knew what Lou Gehrig’s disease was.

His response, according to friends, was that he knew the famous baseball player had died before he reached age 40, and that he was on his way out the door to go on a fishing trip, which he did.

In less than a year, Scandone was in leg braces and thinking about Paralympic gold. It was a dream that kept him alive.

He won a world title in Italy in 2005, winning out in open competition against 88 boats of both disabled and able-bodied competitors. But he continued to lose muscle strength to the point where being in a single-handed boat would no longer be possible. The next step was to get him into a two-person boat and find the right crew mate. That turned out to be McKinnon-Tucker, who had known Scandone for several years and who was thrilled to be picked.

“He called me on Easter Sunday [2007] and told me,” she said. “I was going to get to sail with one of the best in the world.”

The boat of Scandone and McKinnon-Tucker won the U.S. Olympic trials to qualify for Beijing, but the odds of them getting there kept increasing.

McKinnon-Tucker’s 2-year-old son, Trent, was diagnosed with brain cancer. He eventually had surgery to remove a tumor the size of a golf ball. During the time that Scandone and McKinnon-Tucker needed to train, Trent was undergoing intense chemotherapy -- six sessions, each three weeks long. In the midst of all this, she would travel monthly to Newport Beach, where the boat and Scan- done were, and train for four days before returning home to Massachusetts.

They faced the toughest of scenarios. Scandone was dying, and McKinnon-Tucker’s child -- more important than any medal -- was fighting cancer. According to the rules, if one couldn’t race, the other wouldn’t get to either. The boat that finished second in the trials would replace theirs.

“Nick was wonderful through all that,” McKinnon-Tucker said. “He kept encouraging me to do what I needed to do.”

The 15-hour flight to China was tolerable.

“We flew first class,” said Pinckney, also the sailing coach at UC Irvine. “We had to. There was no other way to make him comfortable.”

Scandone had been eating less and less, but once he got on the plane, that changed.

“He ate everything in sight. He treated it like it was a buffet,” Pinckney said. “He knew exactly what he was doing. He was replenishing.”

Scandone was in Beijing for three weeks. The racing took place over a week’s time, and each race took about an hour and a half, depending, of course, on wind. There were 10 races scheduled, and boats usually ran twice a day.

During those three weeks, Scandone’s condition continued to worsen.

“We’d sail out, and he was always in good humor,” McKinnon-Tucker said. “During the race, we’d focus on what we had to -- the wind and the sails. But on the way in, he was tired.”

He saved all resolve and personality for race days.

“He had a wheelchair that was like a Mercedes-Benz,” Pinckney said. “He’d head out for the dock and we’d try to keep up with him on foot, but we finally had to get bikes. He kept ripping us about being out of shape.”

But the humor and the competitive show were at least partly a facade.

“At the end,” said Mary Kate, “people really didn’t know -- even Maureen -- how little Nick had left. He had energy just for sailing. No parties. Nothing else. Just sailing.”

The flight home was torture.

“By the time we had to leave for the airport, to the time we got to San Francisco, and then flew home to Orange County, it was 24 hours,” Mary Kate said. “He couldn’t sleep, and I didn’t realize until it was too late that he couldn’t breathe.”

In San Francisco, she got him into a lounge, made him lie down and got a breathing machine for him.

“He hated that,” she said. “He hated anything in public.”

When they landed at Orange County, there were about 100 people at the airport to congratulate him. When they turned onto their street in Fountain Valley, there was another tribute.

“Every house on the street was flying an American flag,” Mary Kate said.

Pinckney said he wrote down his expectation of Scandone’s final day.

“I said Christmas,” Pinckney said. “He beat me, as usual.”

Mary Kate took a different approach.

She ordered her husband to “make it through the holidays.”

On New Year’s Eve, McKinnon-Tucker got an MRI report that her son remained cancer-free.

Hours later, she got a progress report on Scandone -- he had left the hospital and was in hospice care at home.

“When I heard the word ‘hospice,’ ” McKinnon-Tucker said, “I knew it was close.”

On the day after New Year’s, Mary Kate bent over Scandone and told him she loved him.

“He had a full-face mask by then,” she said, “and he asked me to take it off.”

She did, he told her he loved her and gave her a kiss, and she put the mask back on.

He died within minutes.

“Those were his last words to me,” Mary Kate said.

But not the last words about him.

A memorial service for Scandone is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday at the Balboa Yacht Club in Corona del Mar. Testimonials will be in abundance. As will tributes to courage.

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bill.dwyre@latimes.com


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