RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — With their ponytails flapping and their American flag spinnaker billowing in the breeze, Paris Henken and Helena Scutt sped across Guanabara Bay and became the first U.S. crew to win a race at the Rio Olympics regatta.
Henken, of Coronado, California, and Scutt, of Kirkland, Washington, jumped into the lead at the start and flawlessly sailed their 49erFX skiff around the course to win the fifth race of the series Saturday.
“It was definitely something that we wanted to do, and was in the back of our minds, like, ‘Oh, we should win a race in the Olympics,'” Henken said. “When it was actually happening, it was very exciting and we’re just very happy.”
Henken and Scutt are in their first Olympics, as is the 49erFX, which is similar to the men’s 49er.
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The Americans are ninth overall with six races to sail before the medals race, 18 points out of podium position.
The United States is trying to avoid a second straight Olympic sailing whitewash. The Americans failed to medal at London in 2012, the first time that happened since 1936.
Until Saturday, the best finish for the United States in any class in Rio was second.
The 49erFX is as wild as the 49er, with the crews sailing them hiked out in trapezes, their feet on the edge of the windward wing.
Race 5 was restarted after a general recall. Right before the recall, the American boat capsized after it was hit by British boat’s sail. The Americans quickly righted it.
“It’s a very fast boat compared to a lot of the other Olympic boats,” Henken said. “It’s just a lot of fun how fast it goes, and you have to be on your toes all the time.”
There were big developments in several classes on a gorgeous day far below Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain.
Tonci Stipanovic secured Croatia’s first medal in Olympic sailing, with at least a silver guaranteed in the Laser class. He finished seventh and third to take a 10-point lead over Australia’s Tom Burton going into Monday’s medals race. Burton is guaranteed at least a bronze.
While Stipanovic had a good day, Brazilian star Robert Scheidt had a mediocre one and sailed himself out of a chance for a gold medal. Scheidt, 43, is trying to become the first sailor and first Brazilian to win six Olympic medals. He finished 28th and 11th overall to drop to fifth with 87 points, meaning he can only win a bronze if things fall his way in the medals race.
There was good news for Evi Van Acker, the first competitor to report falling ill during the games from sailing on polluted Guanabara Bay. The defending bronze medalist in the Laser Radial, she had her best day so far, with finishes of first and fifth to jump into fourth. She’s nine points out of podium position going into Monday’s medals race.
“Tomorrow I’m going to rest all day,” she said with a laugh.
Van Acker struggled the first three days. Her coach said he believed she contracted a severe intestinal infection while training in Rio de Janeiro last month.
“I’m fighting for every point because I’m behind and I know every point counts,” she said. “But I’m happy with my day. I’m happy with the way I recovered after the bad three days.”
The Laser Radials were off Thursday, giving her a chance to rest.
“My body was really exhausted. I really had no energy. So I needed to rest and eat well and try to do everything to have more energy and be able to keep fighting.”
What was the miracle cure?
“A lot of rest, a lot of food and a lot of smiling, I guess,” she said. “That helps.”
In the men’s 49er, New Zealanders Peter Burling and Blair Tuke maintained their lead but didn’t win any of the four races. The defending silver medalists, they finished fifth, second, eighth and sixth. They’re favored for gold after winning 27 straight regattas from 2012 until losing in the South American Championships here last month.
The German crew of Erik Heil and Thomas Ploessel won the first of Saturday’s four races and are second, three points behind the Kiwis.
Defending gold medalists Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen of Australia jumped from 11th to sixth. They had finishes of second and fifth before faltering and going 11-12. Outteridge said the Aussies are making too many mistakes and have no excuses. With six races to go before the medals race, they’re five points out of bronze medal position.
Also Saturday, American Caleb Paine of San Diego got a boost when his Race 6 disqualification was overturned. That means he jumps from 15th to seventh with two races to go before the medals race. Britain’s Giles Scott continues to lead the Finn fleet.
Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson