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Let’s add Nick Scandone to sailing’s lexicon, not Cobb

2008 October 30

I was sitting on the yacht club porch with my friend, Eric, when his two boys and a couple other kids ran up, fresh from sailing in the junior program. They were full of themselves, telling us in a rush of words about how they'd gotten inside at the leeward mark or dumped bad air on someone, laughing and reliving the races.

At one point, they were chattering about a crowded start where several juniors, trying to barge the line, were pushed the wrong side of the committee boat.

"Did you see Kevin?" asked one of the kids. "Man, I thought he was going to do a Brodie Cobb!"
I looked at Eric and arched an eyebrow inquisitively. "Tell you later," he said, conspiratorially. When the kids had gone to put their boats away, I found that "doing a Brodie Cobb" is now the nautical equivalent of "going postal." And that was how I came to find that a really ugly moment in sailing has entered the lingo.

For those of you who haven't been paying close attention, Cobb is a San Francisco sailor who has been banned from sailboat racing for two years for an almost unbelievable lapse of sportsmanship.

Cobb is an accomplished sailor who was an All-American at Tulane, the two-time winner of the U.S. Sailing Singlehanded Championships, and a good enough sailor to win his division at the 2006 Laser Masters Worlds.

He was protested by the race committee at a Southern California Laser regatta under Rule 69, a rarely used rule banning "gross breaches of good manners and sportsmanship." The facts found in the case are frightening to anyone who thinks of sailing as a gentleman's sport.

Cobb and a teenager in another Laser had contact at a mark, and Cobb refused to take his penalty turn, yelling something to the effect of "You've ruined my regatta," and "Don't you know who I am?" Pretty arrogant but, hang on, the worst is yet to come.

According to the US Sailing Review Board findings, after the two boats crossed the finish, Cobb rammed the teenager's boat and then proceeded to start punching the kid. Talk about having anger management issues.

The Review Board had no problem tossing Cobb from racing for two years, and his name now seems to be synonymous with anyone who becomes uncontrollably angry on the water.

Frankly, I think Cobb got off easy with two years. Had it been my teenager that he punched, he'd be in jail facing assault charges. And I'm saddened that his yacht club, St. Francis Yacht Club, didn't choose to sanction him as an embarrassment to their reputation. Cobb may be a successful businessman but, hey, punching a teenage kid after a sailboat race? C'mon!

It wasn't long after Cobb became the poster boy for uncontrollable fits of rage that another news item brightened my life. Nick Scandone won the Paralympic Sailing Regatta in China.

Nick who?

Scandone, a sailor from Southern California, has a sailing career nearly as distinguished as that of Cobb, although I'm embarrassed to use Scandone's name in the same sentence.

An avid sailor since childhood, he was an All-American at University of California Irvine in 1990 when its team won both the Dinghy Nationals and the Team Racing Championships. In 1992, he went to the 470 Olympic Trials hoping to make the team for Barcelona but, when he didn't make the cut, he became one of us: a weekend warrior who worked so he could race.

Scandone's life crash-jibed in 2002 when he was diagnosed with ALS. Better known as
Lou Gehrig's disease, it attacks the nerves in the brain and spinal cord, and there is no cure.

At 36, Nick Scandone's days were numbered.

At first, he had to cope with the emerging symptoms: his right hand shrank, he walked with difficulty, and he had painful cramps. Since his time was running out, he quit his job to savor each day.

Then one day, Scandone heard about Paralympic racing for disabled sailors and, in early 2004, he went to Miami where he competed in his first event, placing third. In Paralympic racing, sailors are classed by their condition on a scale of 1 to 7. At first, Scandone was a 6, meaning he was at the "more able" end of the scale.

Shortly afterward, he did well in a second race and began thinking about the Paralympic Games in Beijing, four years away. The terrible question: would he live long enough to compete?

He threw himself into training for the one-man 2.4mR class, which looks like a miniature 12-Meter. In 2005, he won the 2.4mR Worlds and was named the Rolex U.S. Yachtsman of the Year. But ALS is a cruelly progressive disease and his condition soon dropped to a 1.

Scandone realized that he wouldn't be able to compete in the singlehanded class and switched to the new doublehanded Paralympic boat, the SKUD-18. In this class, a two-handed skiff with a keel, rules require one person to be a 1, the other must be at least a 7, and one must be a female.

Scandone hooked up with Maureen McKinnon-Tucker, an East Coast sailor who was paralyzed from the waist down after a fall. In the SKUD 18, the sailors are strapped into snug seats (which tilt upright with electric motors as the boat heels) and steer with push-pull levers.

Sailing four hours a day was difficult because Scandone grew weaker as each month passed, but his determination didn't waver. To make their road to China even more agonizing, McKinnon-Tucker's two-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. But she carried on, knowing Scandone's dream would end if she didn't.

They won the Paralympic Trials and flew to China to represent the United States. At the start of the first race, both Scandone and McKinnon-Tucker broke down and started crying, because they'd achieved the unachievable: the doctors had said he'd never last until the Games.

Cut to the chase: with two races still remaining, they clinched the gold and jade medal to win the 2008 Paralympics.

Scandone's wife Mary-Kate thanked the designer of the SKUD-18, "because he gave me four more years with my husband." Both Nick and Maureen returned to hero's welcomes in their hometowns, but they still have to face uncertain futures.

Looking at the uphill battle that Nick Scandone fought to make his sailing dream come true, I hope that enough youngsters hear of his courage and dedication that they'll want to add his name to the lingo of sailing rather than that of some spoiled rich guy.

I hope kids start telling their friends that they're going to "Nick Scandone" the next regatta.