For most American Olympic sailing hopefuls, making the national team is half the battle. Beyond rigorous training and a demanding travel schedule, athletes will often compete through multiple quadrenniums before they can expect to be medal contenders. The US Sailing Team Sperry’s focus on development supports young athletes along this path, but newcomers Paris Henken and Helena Scutt have the opportunity of a new class to catapult themselves closer to the end goal.
“Paris and Helena are very young to be in the positon they’re in,” says Charlie McKee, US Sailing’s High Performance Director. “Normally, you would say it’s not realistic to contend for a medal at their ages [Scutt is 23, and Henken is 19]. The difference here is that this is a new class, so there are no veterans. That provides much more of an opportunity for young, talented, athletes to move up the ranks. They don’t have to pay their dues for five years, because no one has been sailing these boats for five years.”
In the 49erFX, being in-sync is key. When trimming sheets or adjusting trapeze height, every move affects the other sailor on board. From their similar appearance and tendency to finish each other’s sentences, to their tactical approach on the racecourse and their training strategy, Henken and Scutt have the balance dialed in.
“We always know what the other needs to be doing,” explains Scutt. “Once the starting gun goes off, I try to keep the bigger racecourse in mind, while Paris decides our modes. As the skipper, she’ll focus mostly on boat-to-boat tactics.”
In late May, the pair finished fourth at the Delta Lloyd Regatta in the Netherlands, in preparation for the ISAF Sailing World Cup in Weymouth and Portland in June. Though the regatta doesn’t matter in terms of their qualification for Rio, it’s still a important for their growth.
“Paris and Helena need to gain more experience on the international racing side,” says Mckee. “The international standard is very high, and they need to be comparing themselves against that standard, and consistently be making gains and improvements.”
Scutt and Henken have learned from observation of their competitors and the men’s 49er teams. Plus, they bring their own arsenal of experience to the playing field.
“We both came into this class with years of skiff experience in the 29er,” says Scutt. “It has been interesting to watch the class evolve and see the strength of sailors who came in with Laser Radial or match-racing experience, versus fast-boat sailing. For us, boathandling flows more easily.”
“I feel like a more experienced sailor now than I was on the 29er,” says Henken. “It’s more technical. Instead of just one set of shrouds to keep properly tuned, we now have three to worry about. There’s more variety in the trapezing, depending on the conditions. There’s much more room to play with the boat and modes.”
When they started, they were internationally ranked in the 30s, says Mckee. “Now, if you look at their recent results, they’ve gotten themselves into the mid-teens at major events. That’s a huge jump in six months. They have some gaps in their game, for sure, and they’re working hard on them.”
Henken says boatspeed is their strength, especially in medium and heavy breeze. “We’re working on light-air sailing. At the Pan-Am Games in Toronto [in July], we expect to see light conditions, and we’re excited to get into that groove and hone those skills.”
Scutt is looking forward to gains the team will be making over the coming months in an effort to help the US Sailing Team Sperry qualify in the class, before turning their attention to qualifying as a team themselves. “We’re on the steep part of the learning curve right now,” says Scutt. “We’re thinking ahead to the most important events on our schedule and making training choices so we get the most out of every day.”