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Sailing to gold, no matter the obstacle

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With his father Jeff (in red hat) at his side, Jay Nothnagle sails in Boston Harbor, practicing for the Special Olympics  Massachusetts Sailing Regatta.
With his father Jeff (in red hat) at his side, Jay Nothnagle sails in Boston Harbor, practicing for the Special Olympics Massachusetts Sailing Regatta.(Jim Davis)
Nothnagle’s sailboat was framed by Boston’s skyline during a recent practice run.
Nothnagle’s sailboat was framed by Boston’s skyline during a recent practice run.(Jim Davis)

Jay Nothnagle always wants to win. When he was born, a doctor told his father, Jeff, that his son would spend his life, likely short, sitting in a corner and drooling.

"If that doctor was still alive," Jeff Nothnagle said, "I'd like to give him a piece of my mind. He has no idea how wrong he was."

A 15-sport Special Olympian, Jay, now 43, has redefined athleticism. His first international stage came in 1995. He competed in the World Games to snag the top spot in powerlifting, dead-lifting 260 pounds while only weighing half that himself.

He has since competed twice in Alpine skiing and tried his hand at softball, tennis, equestrian events, speed skating, golf, volleyball, soccer, aquatics, track and field, basketball, candlepin bowling, and ten-pin bowling.

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Above everything else, Nothnagle holds sailing in the highest regard. He and the South Shore Mariners, a crew made up of athletes with intellectual disabilities, practiced for weeks on the Charles River in preparation for the 2017 Special Olympics Massachusetts Sailing Regatta July 29.

Nothnagle is is one of the older crew members steering Rhodes 19 sailboats in the race, even though technically the Special Olympics has no age cap. He can't even remember his first time sailing, but then again, there have been too many times to count. Nothnagle was only a toddler when his father, a Navy man, first brought him on the water.

"It's in my blood," he said.

His father often rides in the boat as part of Nothnagle's team, but isn't allowed to touch anything without Jay's permission during an actual race. While most sailors begin at Level 1, where a qualified skipper helps guide the athlete in the boat, Nothnagle skipped to Level 3 when he began competing.

Everything Nothnagle has done has been accomplished despite his Down syndrome and on his terms. When he was a boy, he established his own paper route in his hometown of Cohasset, where he lives with a roommate today and works at the local Stop & Shop. At 20, he wanted to get his license, so he and his father practiced driving in a cemetery. He passed the driver's test easily.

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Whenever Nothnagle achieves something, his father reminds him of what the doctor said when he was born. He did so when Jay got his license.

"I look at him, and I say, 'Remember what the doctor told you, that you'd be sitting in a corner?' " Jeff said.

Jay looked at him and said, "Handicapped, my ass!"

Since his introduction to competition at age 8, Nothnagle has accumulated hundreds of medals. He has seen three Special Olympics World Games and dozens of statewide Special Olympics events in summer and winter. He even views the annual Polar Plunge fund-raiser for Special Olympics Massachusetts a sport in which he, nearly every year, gathers the most donations.

A week before the Regatta, Nothnagle and the rest of the Mariners held a three-hour practice on the Charles River.

In boat number 16, Nothnagle steered his vessel around a smiling gold buoy, the first weathermark. The practice race, which Mass. Special Olympics assistant head coach Wally Corwin said will closely mimic what the course will look like on Regatta day, was set up like a diamond. The sailors started around the gold middle-right point, angled toward the pink buoy in the north, where the wind was exactly blowing toward them, sailed down to the left-middle buoy and then the green, the farthest, and back toward an invisible line between Corwin's speedboat and the initial gold buoy.

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Sailing ahead of Nothnagle in the practice was Corwin's son, Will. Diagnosed with Down at an early age, he ranks low in IQ but high in social skills. When Will Corwin was old enough to compete, he told his dad how badly he wanted to be in the boat that always wins.

The skipper of that boat — Nothnagle, of course — turned to Will one day and invited him in. In the organization's 2015 Regatta, the pair sailed together to win the gold. Last year, Will finally graduated to skipper his own vessel, which also won gold — giving Nothnagle, for the first time in a long time, the silver.

Being hyper-competitive can sour some people, but not Jay. Every year, after the Regatta ends, he congratulates every sailor beneath him.

"Jay is very dignified," said Andrew Alletag, director of operations at Community Boating, one of the Regatta's sponsors. "If you want to look at 'sportsmanship,' Jay defines that."

In 1999, Nothnagle tied for first in the World Games sailing competition with a woman from Rhode Island who was a friend of his. Four years later, after winning every Special Olympics Mass. Regatta in between, he returned to duke it out with the same woman. It was the first international World Games, 2003 in Dublin, Ireland. Nothnagle took gold alone.

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Nothnagle was inducted into the Special Olympics Hall of Fame in 2012. He now has so many medals that in recent years, when he wins one, he gives it back to the statewide group so that it can be used for another athlete.

For all of his medals and accolades, Nothnagle has ultimately sailed competitively for the last 35 years for the same reason he ventured out in a boat with his dad as a toddler.

"I just like it," he said.

Nothnagle flashes a smile while coming ashore after a practice run in Boston Harbor.
Nothnagle flashes a smile while coming ashore after a practice run in Boston Harbor.(Jim Davis)

Katherine Fominykh can be reached at katherine.fominykh@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @katfominykh.