Cancer survivor Santiago Lange wins World Sailor of the Year

Story highlights

  • Lange had 80% of lung removed pre-Olympics
  • Recovered to compete and win gold in Rio
  • Named World Sailor of the Year in annual awards

(CNN)One of the fairytale stories of the Rio 2016 Olympics began as a nightmare for its main protagonist.

Just eleven months before taking to the water in the Narca 17 sailing division, Santiago Lange had found himself in a Barcelona operating theater, staring up at a cancer surgeon.
    Now, having become a gold medalist despite having most of a lung removed, the 54-year-old Argentine returned to that same Spanish city for one final twist in his remarkable tale.
    At a prestigious awards ceremony in the 18th century Casa Llotja De Mar, Lange was crowned the Rolex World Sailor of the Year in the presence of some 500 guests.
    "People keep saying it's like a Hollywood movie," he told CNN via a Skype call from his home in Argentina prior to the ceremony.
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    The oldest sailor in Rio, Lange was competing at his sixth Olympic Games. But -- despite all the odds -- he has never given up on his quest to become a champion, and achieved that goal by a single point in the final race of his Olympic regatta in the Nacra 17 Mixed Multihull, with sailing partner Cecilia Carranza Saroli.
    Santiago Lange and Cecilia Carranza Saroli celebrate after winning gold at the Rio 2016 in August.
    Lange shakes his head in disbelief at the reaction both in Brazil -- "I must surely be the first Argentinian that Brazilians have cheered," he jokes -- and back at home.
    "Even now it's still crazy. I took a plane in Argentina, the captain spotted me and announced over the system. Everyone on the plane stood up and clapped," he says.
    "And if I'm on a toll road, I'm not allowed to pay a toll. It seems it has had an impact on a lot of people, and everyone seems so happy about our success."
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    That Lange was able to even make it to the start line, let alone be celebrating a golden finale, is down to medical ingenuity and his own remarkably rapid recovery.
    He was diagnosed with cancer in March 2015, but dithered over the medical advice for surgery to remove a lung because "the problem is I like to use my lung!"
    The operation left him with just 20% use of his left lung -- hardly ideal for the potential exertions of an Olympian -- but Rio, whether realistic or not, became a carrot dangled in front of him.
    Despite eight hours of surgery, the next day he was up walking around. Five days later he was at home and walking five kilometers a day. From day 10 to 30 of his recovery, he cycled 450 km with his sons.
    By November last year -- 41 days after surgery -- he was back in the boat.
    "The beginning was enormously tough," he recalls. "Really from then until May or June was so tough because you have to be fit and able to breathe to work your brain.
    "And it made me grumpy all the time. Really, Ceci deserves a second gold medal for putting up with me!"
    Lange (R) and Carlos Espinola won bronze in the Tornado class at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
    By the time they got to Rio, gold seemed possible -- but their initial target was just to finish higher than fourth, so Lange could at least add to his previous two Olympic bronze medals.
    In the dramatic deciding race, the Argentines were penalized and dropped to the rear of the fleet before clawing their way back to sixth. Placing any lower, they would have lost the gold.
    There was no immediate celebration -- they weren't sure where they had finished. Lange recalls thinking he'd missed out on a medal altogether before journalists on a nearby boat relayed the news.
    "There was no words, really, just in my mind an absolute feeling of happiness," he says. "It was a sensational moment."
    Watching on the shoreline were his 87-year-old mother and his brothers, while his sons Yago and Klaus -- also part of Argentina's sailing team -- swam out to meet his boat for an emotional celebration.
    "Luckily, Ceci spotted them," he adds. "All Games are very emotional but to be at an Olympic Games opening ceremony with your sons and then to win gold like that was so special.
    "We'd spent so much time in Rio beforehand that we had lots of Brazilians cheering for us as well."
    Lange and Espinola also won bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
    Lange was given a cellphone for an interview back in Argentina -- it was left on, and the rest of his family's celebrations played out to a massive public audience. Two months on, it is still often replayed.
    Much of the past weeks have been spent at home, where Lange has pursued his other job as a naval architect. He studied the subject in England and has just finished building his own motorboat with a hybrid engine as a hobby.
    His prowess on the design side and on the water also saw him enlisted by Artemis Racing for the Swedish team's 2013 America's Cup campaign, which was hit by the tragic death of Andrew "Bart" Simpson in San Francisco Bay.
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    "That's one of the hardest moments of my life," Lange says, as his usually upbeat voice turns solemn. "I was there that day and it's hard because we know how much of a great man Bart was. He was a great sailor but also a great friend to everyone, and that was so, so tough."
    The effervescent Simpson would certainly have been among the first to congratulate Lange on his Olympic triumph.
    At his age, surely that is the end for him at the Games? He jokes he has to carry on as "it helps me remember my life every four years" -- but he is serious when he says Tokyo 2020 is his new ambition.
    "I do it for the love of sailing -- the outcome is just a positive side effect," he concludes. "I love sailing and I love the Olympic Games. It's my life."