Monday, January 12, 2009

Paralympic Champion Dies

I had never heard about Nick Scandone until I read his obituary last week in the New York Times. His story represents so much of what we value in athletics. He was an elite athlete competing in sailing at the Olympic level when he was diagnosed with ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Wikipedia describes the disease as a disorder that causes muscle weakness and atrophy throughout the body as both the upper and lower motor neurons degenerate, ceasing to send messages to muscles. Unable to function, the muscles gradually weaken, develop fasciculations (twitches) because of denervation, and eventually atrophy because of that denervation. The patient may ultimately lose the ability to initiate and control all voluntary movement except for the eyes.

Can you imagine working so hard to reach the pinnacle of your skills in a sport and to be thrown the monkey wrench of a disease which so violently effects your muscles and coordination? I do realize people young and old battle invasive diseases courageously everyday. Mr. Scandone faced his diagnosis courageously and took it a step further when he decided to continue competing, just in a bit of a different arena. After learning he had ALS in 2002, he shifted his focus to training for the paralympics in the single-handed 2.4 meter class. As his disease progressed, rather than retiring, he shifted to sailing with a partner. As his condition worsened he kept his focus on sailing, competing and achieving.

Mr. Scandone won the paralympics trials in late 2007 and eventually competed in the Paralympics in Bejjing in September, 2008, winning gold with his sailing partner, Maureen McKinnon-Tucker. Additionally, he was chosen by his fellow members of the 2008 United States Paralympics Team for the honor of being the flag bearer for the U.S. team at the opening ceremonies of the Paralympic Games in Beijing.

He died four months after winning his gold medal. Today we have many young athletes who face adversity and we hold them up as models for ourselves and our children. Here is a man, a husband, an athlete and a gold medal winning paralympian, who was able to keep his focus on his athletic and competitive goals even as his disease moved him closer to death. I can only speculate as to what the thrill of competition meant to him as he balanced his health with his competitive desire and love of his sport.

As you and your children search for what motivates them, do not be always be stuck in the traditional sports or activities. Baseball and basketball are fantastic sports but if your child doesn't love them - try something else! Explore skateboarding, volleyball, sailing or swimming. Open the door for them to be active and to challenge themselves. How about you? Try something new as you get older - I can't tell you how many former runners I've met who have switched to aquatic workouts because the knees just weren't what they use to be! I am finding my joy these days comes from riding a bike, a lot less stressful on the knees. I can only hope that in my waning days there will be some sport or activity that I will continue to love enough to keep me going out the door until the bitter end!

The focus on Mr. Scandone shifts toward him and his accomplishments, which were extraordinary. However, don't forget to look at the history and determination of his gold medal winning sailing partner, Maureen McKinnon-Tucker. Hers is an amazing story in its own telling.

Congratulations to all who as Dylan Thomas says:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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