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Henken and Scutt: Riding the Youth Wave

Published on June 22nd, 2016

Improvement for the USA team at the Olympics meant getting younger, and the Women’s skiff team of Paris Henken (20) and Helena Skutt (24) is riding that the new wave. Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck checks in with the duo as they prepare for the Rio Games…

How did you two come together as a team?


Helena Scutt

Paris: Helena and I have been friends since 2008 or 2009. We both sailed the 29er against each other and since there were few girls in that fleet at that time, we definitely bonded throughout the youth regattas. When the FX was then chosen in spring 2012, Helena and I both bought our own rigs, but it wasn’t until early 2013 that we were asked by the federation to do a training camp together in Miami. We had a lot of fun and since then we knew we wanted to sail together!

Helena: I think that our age difference (four school years apart) prevented us from gravitating towards each other sooner, but once we actually got in the boat together it became apparent to each of us that we could go far if we pushed each other.

Your climb toward selection has been steep. Are you surprised at this achievement?

Paris: I definitely think that at the beginning when Anna Tunnicliffe was sailing the FX, it was going to be tough to be the 2016 representative. However, when Anna announced her retirement from Olympic Sailing the whole reality of going to the 2016 Games became a little bit clearer. Eventually, we both made the sacrifice to stop school (my undergrad degree and Helena’s Masters) and committed to a full time campaign to make the 2016 Olympic Team.

Helena: We were certainly up against some impressive women sailors with many more sailing achievements to their name than we each have to this day. However, we have never let that intimidate us. Since I came into sailing late my path was accelerated, and I have never let others’ experience or timelines affect my sense of what I can achieve in a given timeframe. It was my gut feeling all along that we could be more consistently progressing because I knew how much we were improving with each practice and each event, plus we always had short and long-term plans that I truly believed in. For me, the bigger mental shift was not about gearing up for 2016 instead of 2020, but we actually progressed so quickly that the goals became less about being top USA team and more about duking it out with the top international teams.

During the selection series, explain the balance between competing within the fleet and competing against your USA teammates.

Paris: Olympic Trials for any country is really stressful and keeping an eye out on your teammates definitely changes your regatta strategy. Since our first trial event (Sailing World Cup Miami) was also our last attempt to qualify the country for the Games, we had to also focus on all other North American Teams which was the Virgin Islands and Aruba. So at first, Helena and I were mainly focused on beating the Virgin Island team. Once it seemed like USA was going to win the country spot, we switched our focus to the closest American Team, Emily Dellenbaugh and Liz Barry.


Paris Henken

In the second selection event (49erFX Worlds), it was definitely game on, but we thankfully weren’t matched with the other American Teams throughout qualifying series up until the last day. Helena and I agreed that throughout the event we wanted a solid finish as well as being the top team, so not being put in the same fleet as the other Americans helped us focus on our sailing. In the end, we wanted to prove that we were the best American Team and also competitive contenders.

How have things changed since being selected?

Paris: It has definitely been a relief knowing that we are for sure going to the Games now. However, this doesn’t mean that the pedal isn’t down. We have upped our training for the build up to the Games and although we are excited to be the Olympic representatives for the USA, we still have to train even harder to break into that top 5.

Since your selection in February, has it been a challenge to keep your fire lit?

Helena: Absolutely no challenge in keeping the fire lit. We are continuing to evaluate our game from all angles and tackle the areas of biggest upside first. Too many people have given us too much for us to cruise on into the Games, so I can assure you both motivation and action are as high as ever.

Paris: The challenge isn’t keeping that competitive fire lit, the challenge is executing a plan that will enable us to train harder, smarter, and faster than our fellow competitors. Throughout our trials we have been working with Willie McBride and he has definitely been implementing new ways so we can accomplish our goal and steepen the learning curve as a team as we lead up to Rio.

I heard that America’s Cup defense skipper Jimmy Spithill spoke to US Olympic Sailing Team. Anything you can share?

Paris: Yes, we were honored to have Jimmy Spithill speak at our team lunch in New York. Along with cracking a few jokes, Jimmy did a fantastic job expressing to us the importance of understanding mistakes. He explained that throughout any sort of campaign, whether that is the Olympics or America’s Cup, there are going to be many mishaps. And these mistakes are ultimately what makes your team grow as a whole. In the end, you can either take these mistakes with a closed mind and start playing a blame game, or you can see the mistakes as a learning experience.

Helena: Jimmy’s speech certainly resonated with us, as we have had our fair share of misfortune and mistakes, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything. There is no sense in pointing fingers when you could be getting on with work, ensuring your teammates that you believe in them more than ever, and reflecting on your own actions. His emphasis on exuding confidence in your teammates was what we needed to hear as we enter the final months before the biggest regatta of our lives.


Riding the tow in Rio.


Sailing is the easy part.


Paris, Jimmy Spithill, and Helena.


Showing form on the 49erFX.

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