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Terrel Limerick sets sail to independence

Special Olympics athlete Terrel Limerick takes off solo in his Laser boat in sailing at the World Games. This event was his first time sailing in the ocean. Melissa Isaacson/ESPN

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Terrel Limerick was all alone and in control, which made his brother Joel happy for him in a way maybe only a twin could.

The first American to compete in Level 5 Special Olympics sailing, which means Terrel was alone in the boat, it was both a scary and awe-inspiring sight Friday for his roughly 40 family members, friends and co-workers cheering him on in the last leg of competition this week.

But for the one person who keenly felt his brother's frustration and growing pains in trying to keep up as a child and teenager, it was Joel's "honor," he said, to watch him chart out his own territory.

"He doesn't drive a car and there's a lot of autonomy out there," said Joel, gazing out at the distant dot of his brother and cheering as if he could hear him.

"That's it, brother," he yelled and then to no one in particular, "Look at him. He's learning in real time. This is awesome.'"

Terrel, 41, was up against a combined 32 years of experience in Australian competitors Alistair Peek and Bronwyn Ibbotson, the gold and silver medalists in the Athens World Games and the only other sailors in the World Games to race solo.

In stark contrast, Terrel had practiced in the Laser boat for just four months in one of the hardest boats to sail.

Oh yeah, and he had never actually sailed in an ocean before.

"I never thought I'd ever see something like this," said his mother Donna Limerick, wiping away tears. "You dream. You hope. But you never really think about it. It's amazing to see him, someone with a disability, out there in the ocean."

There were safety boats, of course, but not within a dozen camera frames at any given time. And the athletes had dry suits and flotation devices, which came in handy when they all capsized on a choppy first day of competition, which Terrel did on four occasions.

But if a race official came in contact with a sailor, he or she would be automatically disqualified, which prompted several coaches to warn those in the safety boats, in no uncertain terms, to stay away from their sailors.

Observing Terrel determinedly flip back over the 130-pound vessel and climb back in it, several veteran sailors were overheard saying if it were them, they would have come in after the second time.

"He gained instant respect from every sailor on the dock that day," a Special Olympics official said.

One person whose respect he didn't need to win was Joel, the CEO of an 80-person Washington-based technology firm that builds data storage and analytic solutions for the federal government and private sector.

What struck Joel most dramatically as he watched his slightly younger brother navigate the unpredictable winds of the Pacific Ocean was how different the two of them are, he said, and how much he envies Terrel because of it.

A warm but shyer, more cautious and introspective version of the always social, always smiling Terrel, Joel was in on much of the preparation for the World Games and the coaching this past week.

"Typically there's a lot of geometry in sailing, a lot of math and angles," Joel explained, "and the tendency is to force an abstract conception. I started listening to Terrel's rationale for doing what he was doing this week. For example, he'd go far away from the starting line and I asked why and he had decided to hedge his bets against getting disqualified [from a premature start].

"Rather than over-think, he is completely instinctual, one thousand percent in the moment. I honestly don't understand how he does it but then, he doesn't understand why we do what we do."

Because he doesn't read, Terrel operates on a series of checks and balances and a keen memory, his brother theorizes. "It's how he uses the Metro [Washington's rapid-transit system] in D.C. [to travel to his job with Special Olympics International]," Joel said.

With the changing winds Friday making conditions rough and choppy one minute, and glassy and patchy like his home Potomac River the next, Terrel's flexibility kept him in the hunt against his more experienced rivals.

"It's something we can all learn from, being in the moment," Joel said. "How many times do we mess ourselves up by being too much in our own heads? He's totally unflappable."

The twins' father Robert taught them to sail as young boys and their stepfather Larry further fostered the hobby. "I took sailing to the next level to compete," Terrel said. "A lot of times he won and I told him, 'I will beat you some day' and then I did."

The Limerick twins arrived in November of 1973, premature at seven months and a surprise to their mom, who thought she was just having "one big, fat baby."

Instead, Joel arrived first at four pounds, followed a minute later by Terrel at three-and-a-half pounds. Both were placed in an incubator and stayed in the hospital for a week.

Their mother is matter of fact about what caused Terrel's brain damage, neither angry nor assessing blame. "I've been told over the years that it had something to do with the oxygen he received for his under-developed lungs, but nobody really knows," she said.

Donna said they didn't know anything was wrong until age two, when the Montessori School the boys attended told them Terrel's motor skills were below average.

Doctors called Terrel "learning disabled" and it was about that time, said Donna, a reporter and for 17 years the head of National Public Radio's documentary department, that she went her own way.

"I knew the doctor could tell me one thing," she said, "and I could go to the office and can call an expert, a book author and introduce myself and get so many more answers. So there wasn't a real fear for me 'Am I doing the right things?'"

It wasn't the only strong instinct Donna had. She said she purposely avoided telling Joel to watch out or protect his brother, though years later Joel confided he did have to step in and defend his brother at overnight summer camp.

"I didn't want Joel to feel overly responsible," she said. "I knew they would grow at their own rate and have their own lives. And I knew Terrel would have to get by on his own."

Terrel called it "difficult. When I was younger, people kept on teasing a lot because I have a disability," he said. "But I overcame that."

While Joel was placed in a gifted program and Terrel was in special education classes, the two had "epic battles" in basketball, said Joel, and "we still had a lot of fun and were very close.

"I understood he was different but my concept of a learning disability was not a simple stereotype because I had him," he said.

For Terrel, the teenage years were the toughest.

"It was very hard for him to see someone who looked exactly like him but was able to drive, go away to college and do all these other things he couldn't do," Joel said.

"That was a difficult time," Donna said. "Terrel wanted to drive and we had to explain that because of his reading problems, it would be extremely difficult and dangerous and that he couldn't do that. Those years were hard until the tables were turned."

She laughed while telling the story of Joel returning from Morehouse College to find that his brother had his first full-time job and was drawing a steady paycheck.

"It's too bad you don't have a job," Terrel told his brother. "But don't worry, one day you'll have a job and things will be different.'"

Joel got a similar speech in their early 20s when Terrel got his first apartment (through Maryland's Target Community & Educational Services, Inc.), and Joel was still living at home.

"Don't worry Joel," Terrel told him, "one day you'll get your own apartment."

Joel laughed as well at the reality that now Terrel's speech can easily be, "Don't worry, maybe one day you'll be in the Olympics and be on TV."

"He's definitely passed me up," his brother said.

The brothers still live close and see each other often. Joel is to be married to Emily, his fiancé of a year and girlfriend of two-and-a-half years, on Aug. 29. Terrel will be the best man and his relationship with his sister-in-law-to-be couldn't be better, they all say.

"He's my new brother," Emily said. "Terrel has such great energy. He's always laughing and making jokes. And he and Joel love each other so much."

Joel said the two "laugh to tears together" and their sense of humor is dry yet contagious. Donna likes to tell the story, often repeated to her by those who were there, of Terrel's visit to Capitol Hill 10 years ago as part of Special Olympics International's Capitol Hill Day, when athletes visit Congress and walk the hallways like lobbyists, telling politicians why the Special Olympics should be supported.

"So Terrel is up there, dressed like a congressman," Donna said, "and someone walked past and said, 'Good morning, Senator Obama.' And without batting an eye, Terrel said, 'Good morning, sir. How are you?' and just kept walking.

"To this day that man doesn't know that wasn't Sen. Obama."

Terrel called "my last race the best" Friday, and waiting on the dock to affirm that observation was Donna, Emily, aunts, cousins, a large contingent of co-workers from the Special Olympic International office, and clearly his biggest fan.

"I'm over the moon, it's surreal," Joel said. "He has really conducted himself like a champion. ... It's great the rest of the world gets to see what we get to see on a day-to-day basis."