Recently, I’ve written a pair of articles about sailing. What first sparked my interest in the sport was when I found out about 2016 Olympian Helena Scutt, a 24-year-old who is from my hometown of Kirkland, Washington.
One of the first things I talked to her about when I met her recently was how she got into sailing, as it’s not your typical after-school sport.
“My dad has always sailed with his brothers,” she said. “I remember being really scared to do sailing summer camps… In my head, I was like, ‘No! That sounds so scary!’ But then one summer he signed me up, and I had a lot of fun.” That was when she was around 10 years old; however, she didn’t really get started until she was a freshman in high school.
She met her teammate, Paris Henken, during some larger regattas. “The national team coaches thought we would be a good pair,” Scutt recalled. They first started sailing together in March 2013.
Except there was one big problem. In September of that year Scutt got hit by a boat. She fractured a bone in her back and two ribs and lacerated her kidney. One thing that I found interesting was that she knew the boat was going to hit her. “I looked over my shoulder and knew in that instant that I was going to get hit, and there was nothing I could do about it,” said Scutt. She had a feeling that she was going to be okay but added, “When someone tells you that you fractured your spine, you’re pretty scared.”
She returned to sailing four months later, and in February 2016, Scutt and Henken qualified for the Rio Olympics.
Scutt compared the Olympics to other events she had done. The main difference? The Olympic Village.
“It reminded me of being a student-athlete at Stanford because [Stanford] has so many sports, and we lived in dorms,” said Scutt. “And there is a dining hall. So, it was a little like college.”
There was also a lot more media around in Rio than at other events. She said that when she sailed, the helicopters above her would be so loud that she would have to yell to Henken, who was right next to her.
Scutt complimented the host country fans and volunteers, saying, “All the Brazilians were really nice, warm, welcoming people.”
And, recalled Scutt: “The racing was incredible. We had really fantastic conditions.”
Scutt and Henken won the fifth regatta during the Olympics, which made them feel, as Scutt put it, “on top of the world.” They made the medal round as well. Although, when they entered the medal round, it was mathematically impossible for them to get on the podium. They entered tied for ninth, could have made it to sixth, but unfortunately fell to tenth.
She said she enjoyed the closing ceremony more than the opening ceremony because “we were able to relax more,” and “it’s just like a big party.” She added, “Everyone was just trying to soak it up one last night.”
Scutt did have an interesting inside story. She told me that within the U.S. delegation (554 athletes, yikes!), there is what she called a “sub-Olympic sport,” of “battling to the front of the line when you get into the opening ceremony.”
These were Scutt’s first Olympics, and she told me that at the closing ceremony they were really enjoying themselves. “After you go around [the stadium] once, you were supposed to sit down, but we were having a lot of fun, so we went through again,” she said.
She met a few athletes, including 2012 individual all-around gold medal-winning gymnast, Gabby Douglas; 200 backstroke world-record holder Missy Franklin; and Golden State Warriors teammates Klay Thomason and Draymond Green.
Scutt left the door open to competing in Tokyo in 2020. She explained that Henken needed to go back to school for a few years, so they need to reassess how reasonable it is for them to sail together.
Scutt added that she really wants go back but “really want[s] to be in medal contention.”
She did acknowledge that there is more to the Olympics than that. “It’s not just about whether you get a medal, or what your result is,” said Scutt. “It’s about the things you learn about yourself, and the whole journey. It’s also about the people that join you on your journey, and that you get to meet through it, because those are the memories that stay with you the most.”
Photographs by: US Sailing Team/Daniel Forster (2), Hayden Goldberg