Helena Scutt, who has teamed up with Paris Henken to qualify for this summer’s Olympics in sailing, overcame a serious back injury to continue in the sport. Scutt and Henken will represent the U.S. in the 49erFX, a boat that will be making its Olympic debut.
On a momentous February day in Clearwater, Fla. the two women sailed up to their coach triumphantly, giddy with elation.
After a dominating performance in the opening races of 49erFX world championships, Helena Scutt, a Kirkland native, and Paris Henken, from San Diego, had locked up their spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team two days before the end of the regatta.
That Friday afternoon marked the fulfillment of a dream years in the making.
As Scutt, 23, and Henken, 20, piloted their skiff back to the beach in Florida and excitedly announced their accomplishment to their friends and family via social media, it all finally started to sink in.
Scutt, who as a little girl from Kirkland learned to love boats by sailing the waters of Lake Washington with her English father while munching on fish and chips from Ivar’s on Lake Union, was going to sail in the Olympics.
After postponing graduate school at Stanford, coping with the stress that comes from knowing you have to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance a dream that afforded you slim odds of success, and getting back in the boat after breaking her back in a serious accident that required months of recovery time, suddenly, for Scutt, it was all worth it.
She and Henken had earned the right to make history as the first pair of sailors to represent the United States in Rio in the 49erFX, a boat that will be making its Olympic debut.
‘An athletic endeavor’
Even though sailing itself has been part of the modern Olympic Games since the beginning in 1896, high-performance skiff racing did not become one of the Olympic sailing classes until the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, when the 49er was added to the Olympic sailing lineup and the Seattle pair of brothers, Charlie and Jonathan McKee, took home bronze for the U.S.
“A lot of times when people think of sailing, they’re influenced by old stereotypes of crusty old men on top of their America’s Cup yachts, and there’s a guy in charge,” said Willie McBride, Scutt and Henken’s coach. “High-performance sailing is much more of an athletic endeavor, a team effort.”
The Rio de Janeiro Olympics will mark the first year in which there will be a high performance skiff-racing event for women in the Summer Games. These skiffs are nothing like traditional sailboats, says Jen Glass, who coached Scutt when she first started sailing at the Seattle Yacht Club at about age 11.
Scutt grew up sailing around Seattle with her father Oliver, an Englishman who, as a boy, spent many summers sailing with his brothers at their grandparents’ place on the Isle of Wight, a traditional center of British yacht racing.
Scutt learned to sail on a little Laser Pico boat, but later transitioned to the 29er skiff, before moving on to the bigger 49erFX in 2012.
“From the athletic perspective, skiffs are more like windsurfing,” Glass said. “You’re often on your feet, you can’t really sit down and relax. There’s a lot more that could go wrong, (skiffs) can capsize a lot more, they’re moving at faster speed and they’re usually closer together when they’re racing.”
The 49erFX that Scutt and Henken will sail in Rio this August weighs about 220 pounds and does not stand upright on its own when eased into the water. The women control the boat in part by constantly shifting their body weight. This involves hanging off the trapeze on the side of the boat, frequently leaning so far back that they’re racing parallel to the water.
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“We can actually go faster than the wind, that’s how efficient and light these boats are,” Scutt said.
Twenty 49erFX teams will compete in the 12-race series at the Olympics in August, with the top 10 making it to the medal race
Scutt and Henken finished 13th at the world championships in February in the same race in which they qualified for the Olympics. Even though they’re the top U.S. team, they are considered underdogs to medal because they’re younger and more inexperienced than many of their competitors.
“But at the same time, they could really surprise a lot of people in August by continuing to improve the way they have,” McBride said. “I think the one thing that’s really encouraging is that Paris and Helena have made a steady charge up the ranks.
“I’ve certainly been really impressed at how, at every single regatta that I’ve worked with them, they do a really good job putting to work the lessons they learned at the last event.”
Scutt and Henken met for the first time in 2008, but didn’t team up as sailing partners until 2013, upon the recommendation of Charlie McKee, who is currently U.S. Sailing’s high performance director.
They found that they worked well together, and saw early success, winning the first two races they entered together in the summer of 2013. But in their third event together, things went horribly wrong.
In September 2013, at the world championships in France, both women were hanging off the trapeze of their boat, backs inches from the water and approaching one of the marks on the course, when they sighted a German skiff coming at them from the opposite direction.
Henken, who’s the skipper and in charge of steering, looked to maneuver away from the oncoming boat, but both women quickly realized that the field of skiffs were packed so tightly together that there was nowhere they could go.
Henken and Scutt’s boat collided with the Germans’ boat, but the skiffs themselves never touched. Instead, the wing of the German boat hit Scutt’s outstretched body, and her back took the brunt of the impact.
Both boats flipped, and the four women found themselves in the water.
Henken and the Germans were fine. Scutt knew, as soon as she bobbed up to the surface in her life jacket, that she was seriously injured. Every breath hurt, but she managed to holler at Henken to call for help.
When help arrived, Henken pulled Scutt up and into their coach’s boat, then hurriedly stripped off Scutt’s gear. She lifted her teammate’s shirt, and to her horror found that half Scutt’s torso had already turned black and blue. Paramedics immobilized Scutt in a cervical brace and she was raced to the hospital by ambulance.
Scutt had broken two ribs and fractured the left transverse process of her second lumbar vertebrae. She also had a lacerated kidney and severe internal bleeding.
Surprisingly, however, Scutt’s injuries did not require surgery. Doctors told her there was nothing she could do except allow her body to heal on its own over time.
So Scutt went back at Stanford to resume her senior year of college. She spent most of her time in bed, either sleeping or studying, travelled to and from classes in a golf cart, and relied on her friends and roommates to help nurse her back to full health.
Trust forged through crisis
In the immediate aftermath of the accident, Henken was wracked by guilt because she blamed herself for the collision.
“I felt really bad because I was the one steering the boat, and I thought maybe I could have done something more with the situation,” Henken said. “It kind of sucks to think that in an instant you could have changed someone’s life drastically.”
But Scutt repeatedly assured her teammate that she was not at fault, and the pair now believe that getting through the accident has brought them closer together.
“I think it really made us stronger as a team, realizing what trust means,” Scutt says. “It strengthened our bond.”
Scutt did not race again until January 2014, when she and Henken were reunited at the Sailing World Cup in Miami. Despite the severity of her injuries, Scutt says she never thought twice about getting back in the boat.
“The boat didn’t hurt me. … It wasn’t the boat. It was the other boat,” Scutt said. “Being around other boats, that’s what’s scary for me. And still, sometimes, when we’re in a similar situation (to the accident) I’ll lean up a little bit.”
In June 2014, Scutt got her undergraduate degree from Stanford, while Henken graduated from Coronado High School in California. That fall, Scutt started a masters program at Stanford, and Henken completed one semester of college at the College of Charleston in South Carolina before the pair realized that they’d have to train full-time if they wanted to make it to the 2016 Olympics.
They took leaves of absence from school, and by December 2014, embarked on their Olympic quest. So far, the gamble has paid off. Henken and Scutt took bronze at the 2015 Pan-American Games in Toronto, and have established themselves as the top American team in their class.
But as they quickly discovered, mounting an Olympic campaign can be a costly endeavor.
Travel and training expenses for Henken, Scutt and their coach can cost upwards of $14,000 per month. Scutt estimates that this year’s Olympic campaign has cost more than $90,000, and the women have had to raise the bulk of this on their own through a variety of fundraising efforts.
A crowdfunding effort on the site RallyMe raised about $16,000 that got Scutt and Henken through Olympic trials in February. Since then, they’ve worked with sponsors, family and friends to try to raise another $75,000 to get them through the Olympics.
‘The artist and the scientist’
As skipper, Henken is tasked with steering the boat, while Scutt controls the main sail, among several other tasks.
Their personalities fit well with their roles on the boat, and the pair complements one another in a multitude of ways, McBride said.
“Paris is the artist on the boat. She’s really good at feeling the boat and is very sensitive to changes in pressure in the sheets and the waves. She can feel what the boat needs,” McBride says. “Helena is the scientist on the boat. She’s really good at doing the mechanics, very good at doing the routine. When we talk in our debriefs about when something needs to change, Helena only needs to hear that once and it becomes part of the routine right away.
“Having those two different styles – the artist and the scientist – they have the whole package. They have the feel, and the ability to reproduce the same maneuvers consistently, and it makes it so they can focus on the racing.”
Racing these skiffs at the international level is part art and part science. It involves being able to quickly read and adapt to conditions, but requires that the sailor possess enough technical know how to plan and execute the best course of attack.
Aside from on-the-water training, Henken and Scutt also do regular strength and conditioning work, and spend hours analyzing video, reading articles to enhance their technical knowledge, and consulting with U.S. Sailing’s team meteorologist to learn about the conditions they’ll encounter in Rio.
Between now and the Olympics, Scutt and Henken will make three training trips to Rio to scope out the terrain and get used to the local water conditions. The pair expects the waters in and around Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro to move in a lot of different directions at varying strengths, depending on the time of day and the shifting winds.
The other tricky thing about high performance sailing is that race courses are not laid out until the day of the event. Unlike, a cyclist or marathon runner, it’s impossible to stage a practice run through the exact course before race day.
“Literally, five minutes before the race starts, they are dropping the marks in the water, and it’s you job as the sailor to figure out the best path,” Scutt says. “Everyone in the race takes a different path. … They’ll even move the marks during the race. If something changes halfway through the race, they can alter the course. So it’s all about being flexible and thinking on your feet.”
Teamwork is a big part of the equation too. And not just between Scutt and Henken. Out on the water, with the wind swirling and the swell building, the boat becomes a character with a personality of its own, and Scutt and Henken’s success is ultimately determined by how well they demonstrate their mastery of this strong-willed boat amidst the elements.
“If it’s light wind, the boat is calmer and you really need to tell the boat what to do. You have to be more forceful with your body weight and rock it in certain ways, but you have to be very smooth and not disturb everything,” Scutt said. “When it’s windy, we call it ‘boat wrestling.’ The boat is this platform you have to keep under you. It still demands slow motions, but you have to be a lot quicker and assert your control over it.
“You really have to have that mentality that you are in control. Otherwise, the boat will just throw you off. Literally.”
The past has taught valuable lessons, and the future represents endless opportunity. But when Scutt and Henken are on the water, the present is all that really matters.
“You learn to be aware of your surroundings and learn to look and see the wind on the water, and you’re only using the wind so you’re totally in the rhythm and at peace with where you are,” Scutt said. “I think that’s special. There aren’t a lot of opportunities or things you can do that bring you totally into one moment, and I think sailing allows you to forget about everything else and just focus on the present.”