Nick Scandone, an Orange County sailor who won a gold medal at the 2008 Paralympic Games in China six years after having been stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease, died Friday at his Fountain Valley home. He was 42.
Sailing since he was 8, Scandone was an All-American yachtsman at UC Irvine who fell just short of qualifying for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He left competitive sailing behind until being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2002.
Three years later, Scandone was named U.S. Sailing’s Rolex yachtsman of the year after beating an 88-boat fleet of able-bodied and disabled sailors in the 2.4-meter open world championship regatta off the coast of Italy.
He has been nominated for the 2008 award, sailing’s highest honor, with the results to be announced later this month. In September, as skipper of a two-person keelboat, Scandone and crew member Maureen McKinnon-Tucker, a paraplegic from Marblehead, Mass., won the gold medal in the SKUD-18 class at the Paralympics regatta in Qingdao, China.
Scandone’s wife, Mary Kate, and his brother, Rocky, accompanied him to China and cheered him on during the international competition for disabled athletes held weeks after the Summer Olympics. The U.S. team chose Scandone as its flag bearer for the opening ceremony at Beijing.
“It was inspirational,” Rocky Scandone told The Times on Saturday. “Nick knew what he wanted to accomplish, and he kept himself alive for the Olympics. When he was diagnosed with [ALS], we thought it would be a couple years. Around the fourth year he had his eyes set on the Olympics, and we all said, well, that’s great to have that goal, but no one thought he would be that strong to last two years. He willed himself through it. It was an incredible, incredible journey.”
An estimated 5,600 Americans annually develop ALS, a degenerative neuromuscular disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Few patients live more than five years after being diagnosed.
“Without sailing, I don’t know where I’d be,” Scandone said after winning the gold medal.
Born March 4, 1966, in Santa Ana, Scandone grew up in Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley. He learned to sail when his mother gave him a choice of summer school or a sailing program at the Balboa Yacht Club.
He took to the water right away, and after high school he joined the sailing team at UC Irvine, became an All-American and helped the Anteaters win the national championship in 1988. He graduated in 1990 and a year later won the 470 class National American title.
After the disappointment of missing the 1992 Olympics, Scandone put sailing on his weekend itinerary. He and Mary Kate were married in 1998, sailing around the British Virgin Islands on their honeymoon.
A year after a doctor told him that his nagging back pain was caused by ALS, Scandone quit his job as a restaurant equipment salesman in 2003 and decided to devote the rest of his time to sailing.
At first, Scandone was strong enough to skipper a one-seat sailboat with adaptive equipment, but as he weakened and lost the use of his legs, he switched to the two-person dinghy fitted with hand controls.
“It was sort of a blessing when he found Paralympic sailing,” Rocky Scandone said. “It got him focused on what he loved to do again.”
The Paralympic victory was the pinnacle for Scandone.
“It was bittersweet for me because I knew that once it ended, the disease was taking a toll on him, and he wouldn’t be living much longer than that,” his wife said Saturday. “But it was a joyous occasion, and he will live in history as a gold medalist.”
In addition to his wife and brother, Scandone is survived by his father, Vincent, of Huntington Beach. His mother and a sister died two years ago.