On February 12th, Helena Scutt and Paris Henken became the first sailors to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games for Team USA, competing together in the 49erFX boat. Helena also happens to be one of my great friends, going back to when we met during our freshman year at Stanford University.
We clicked right away because we both compete in technology-oriented sports, value our education, and are huge advocates and supporters for women in sports. It was my absolute pleasure to interview Helena about her sailing career thus far and to get some of her thoughts as she prepares for the Rio Games.
Julia: How did you get involved in sailing?
Helena: My father is a sailor and he is the person who introduced me to the sport. I was exposed to soccer throughout junior high and middle school and when I burned out of that, instead of seeing sailing as just summer camp, I decided to give the racing a try and fell in love with it. I had so much to learn and really enjoyed being in a constantly changing environment. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who really helped me develop in the sport and who made it a lot of fun.
J: And one of those people is your partner, Paris Henken. How did you and Paris meet?
H: Paris and I met when I was still in high school. I was 16 or so, on my first trip to California down from Seattle, to sail in a regional event. We sailed against each other and were friends. We’re four school years apart, so at first we didn’t really talk about sailing together. Fast forward five years, and the U.S. coaches suggested I give sailing with Paris a try. We did a training camp together one weekend in March of 2013, had a great time, so we never looked back.
H: People describing sailing as a “constantly moving chess board.” There are so many aspects to sailing. [In order to go fast] we have to capture the wind and use the force of the waves as well, so we’re constantly adjusting the shape of our sail to be most efficient. Paris is steering as the wind changes direction. We also adjust to the waves, so all of those are the weather elements. There’s also our strategy, like where is the most wind on the course, or, where the current in the water would be favorable or not. Finally there are tactics, which is all based on boat-to-boat positioning, since we’re racing against between 19 and almost 40 teams at the same time.
J: Auto racing and sailing are both sports that utilize technology for competitions. What kind of technologies do you use, besides the boat itself?
H: We have a watch, with a 5 minute countdown to the start. During that time we need to position our boats to optimize our starting point, without being on the course side of the line. So that’s the watch [laughs]. We also have a compass with a digital display to tell us which direction we’re facing, from 0 – 359 degrees.
It’s my job to monitor that so that Paris and I know if we’re taking the most direct path around the course. I do calculations on where the wind is coming from and how much it’s changing directions and feeding that information to [Paris]. The other thing is that our mast is made of carbon fiber, and it’s supported by three sets of metal wires. Based on how much tension we have on different wires, that affects the sail shape. We use a tension gauge [a spring] to measure the tensions. We’re very in tune with how the boat should feel, so it’s our job to tune our ‘racing machine’.
H: Exactly, and that’s the thing that no coach can tell you exactly how to do. You need to develop that feel over time.J: And that’s part of what makes you and Paris such a good pair. You were in college when you started sailing with her in 2013, did you know you were going to try for the Olympics together?
H: Obviously the Olympics are the goal because that’s the pinnacle of our sport, but at first we weren’t really focused on that. We were more just trying to figure out the boat.
J: To get your footing moving forward.
H: Yep. And one of my biggest role models in sailing is Anna Tunnicliffe, who was a gold medalist in Beijing in 2008, and she was sailing the boat with the wife of my varsity sailing coach at Stanford. So they were an intimidating pair to compare ourselves to, especially since Paris and I were only 21 and 17 [laughs]. So we were focusing on ourselves at that point.
J: Focus on the steps, not the end results.
H. Right! Focus on the process while you’re racing, not the pressure.But Anna then retired, and that’s when we had much more serious phone calls with the national team coaches, our parents, and each other, about putting our educations on hold to see if we could give 2016 a real shot.
We’ve been pushing that ever since and are now in a really good position.
H: It was pretty surreal! We qualified two days earlier than we expected to because of how they split the boats halfway through the event. So instead of qualifying on Sunday, we qualified on Friday and that made it extra crazy. And it was a lot of fun!
J: Were there any mental challenges with doing so well early on, while still being at World Championships (which also served as qualifiers)?
J: You talked about needed to be bigger and bulkier for sailing, just like I have to do for auto racing. What do your workouts look like?
H: My role is different than Paris’ because I need to pull one of the sails up and down really quickly at different points in the race, so I need a lot of upper body strength. Like most women, I found it pretty hard to increase a lot of mass in my upper body, so I focus on strength up there and mass in my lower body, like my legs. I do a lot of squats and lunges to put on mass. Then I do dumbbell rows and pull-ups to get the strength in my upper body. Because I’m on the road so much in different countries I consume a lot of protein shakes and bars. Smoothies are a great way to consume a lot of calories.
H: For many years I wasn’t the natural first choice to be in the crew position in sailing, because of my weight. That position usually went to the boys who were bigger. But I had a lot of fun with it, and I stuck with, and I had the feeling “yes, I am the only girl crew at this event, but I know it’s going to pay off later.” I had a feeling that a women’s high performance boat would be selected, and until that point a lot of girls hadn’t ventured into that type of racing. So by sticking it out with the boys, we learned how to beat them, how to push ourselves, and not take the easy way out, which has really paid off. It’s awesome to be a girl and know that you can kick a lot of guys’ butts!