Sailor begins voyage of healing and hope

Battle: Once just an activist in the fight against lymphoma, Gary Jobson now has the disease.

July 01, 2003|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

Gary Jobson is having a "good day," his first really good day in a long time.

The sailing celebrity - America's Cup winner, ESPN commentator and producer - walks swiftly around downtown Annapolis on an afternoon as bright and sunny as his mood. He talks eagerly about the book he's writing about racing. And, he jokes about his thin, wispy tufts of white hair, telling a guest he's sporting "the hatched-chicken look," the result of chemotherapy.

For the last few months, the sailing world has been without its mainstay as Jobson, one of the nation's most recognizable sailors, has canceled appearances around the country for the first time in years.

His absence was felt most keenly at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's regatta in Annapolis last month, a cause which Jobson has championed for more than a decade. Jobson was at home in his Inner Harbor apartment after he was found to have lymphoma himself.

"In a weird way, I helped raise money for something I became a consumer of," says Jobson during his first extensive interview since his diagnosis, in his Annapolis office, surrounded by sailing memorabilia, books, videos and awards.

It was a startling twist for the sportsman, who had no previous personal connection to the disease - no family history, no sick friends. For a decade, he courted yacht clubs and sponsors, as the national chairman of the regatta campaign, helping to expand it from a single event in Annapolis to one that raised $2.2 million last year at 47 events in 33 states.

But lymphoma is not a disease you can predict, he says. You can't point to your lifestyle or your eating habits to explain it. Unlike breast cancer or some other diseases, you can't blame heredity. Researchers have pinpointed few risk factors and no cause.

With lymphoma, "there is no `Why me?' " Jobson, 52, says. "It is just: `You are.' "

C. Richard D'Amato, a former state delegate and close friend, says Jobson has maintained a "terrific" outlook, focusing on the future.

"If you could cure yourself with attitude, he is going to be fine," D'Amato says.

Jobson, a New Jersey native, began to make a name for himself in sailing 30 years ago as a two-time College Sailor of the Year while attending the State University of New York Maritime College. In 1977, he was part of the team that won the America's Cup, as a tactician aboard Courageous with Ted Turner. He coached sailing at the U.S. Naval Academy and moved into the building on Church Circle in Annapolis, where he still has an office.

But by the mid-1980s, Jobson had begun to fashion a different career around his passion for the sport. In 1985, he joined ESPN as the network's sailing commentator and won an Emmy three years later for his coverage of the Olympic Games in South Korea on NBC.

He has written 13 books on sailing, presented almost 2,000 lectures reaching hundreds of thousands of sailors, recorded about 400 television shows and led sailing excursions to Antarctica, the Arctic Circle and Cape Horn.

Geoff Mason, a former executive producer for ESPN, first worked with Jobson previewing the 1987 America's Cup, which he said was the network's first major investment in sailing programming.

"We were looking for someone who came from the sport with passion and the ability to articulate that passion and knowledge, and Gary was the guy," Mason says. "He has turned into one of the industry's foremost spokespersons for his sport, no question."

Jobson also has been an advocate for the region, credited by many as the force that brought the Volvo Ocean Race, formerly the Whitbread, to Maryland in 1998 and last year. The race, which will return to the region in 2006, helped to bolster Annapolis' claim as "America's Sailing Capital," and was followed by other major sailing events.

But in February, while covering another America's Cup for ESPN in Auckland, New Zealand, he struggled to maintain appearances as his health began a downward slide. A few weeks earlier he had developed a cough that he couldn't shake, and his symptoms worsened.

"I was exhausted," he says. "I was going to bed right after shows and throwing up during commercials."

Still, he kept "toughing it out," traveling around the country on a whirlwind speaking tour with 26 lectures in five weeks.

"Every week I kept getting slower, to the point when I was the slowest guy walking in the airport," he says.

After speaking before a group of sailing enthusiasts and fans at the Cleveland Yachting Club, he was approached with an unusual request.

"A doctor came up to me and said: `You don't look very good, can I do some tests on you?' " Jobson says.

Jobson showed up in the doctor's office the next day, and tests showed that his white blood cell count was high. Something was very wrong.

He finished his weekend engagements and came home to start myriad tests. Ten days later he had the results: lymphoma.

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