Tokyo 2020: Victory within defeat

Published on February 16th, 2020

by Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt Sailing News
When Americans Paris Henken and Helena Scutt finished tenth in the 49erFX at the Rio 2016 Olympics, they were still on the ascent. It was an epic result for a team with so much more ceiling, so I was gutted when they split and took different tracks.

That was their first Olympic campaign, and it continued a trend of one-and-dones that had plagued the US Team. While you can say the country fails to sufficiently support athlete’s ability to continue, it remains hard to see the athlete investment without maximizing the moment.

So I turned the page, and watched another new USA team, this time Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea, begin the climb. I was on the water for one of their early training days, and saw how humbling the 49erFX can be. These two elite sailors were swimmers.

But they persevered during the quad, benefited significantly by sponsor Kilroy Realty, and soon separated themselves from the USA teams. They found international success too, finishing 5th at the 2018 Europeans and 3rd at 2019 World Cup Series Genoa. Their goal of succeeding at Tokyo 2020 Olympics was within reach.

As I was beginning to forget about Paris and Helena, Paris returns, but this time with the last gold medalist from the US Team archives – Anna Tunnicliffe Tobias. After Anna won at Beijing 2008, she shifted to the Women’s Match Racing event for London 2012, became a favorite but left disappointed in fifth.

With that event eliminated for Rio 2016, she shifted again to the new women’s event, the 49erFX, but when her fire for sailing had simmered, she went full-time into CrossFit. Anna proved to be a winner again, soon claiming the title of Fittest on Earth in 2018 as a Masters Athlete.

But the US Team was eager for internal competition, with depth as a critical component for Olympic success, so Paris and Anna were brought together in 2018 for a blind date. Anna moved from her usual driving position to the front of the boat to crew, and with positive vibes, they teamed up to commit for Tokyo 2020.

However, their backs were against the wall. Time was short and support was thin. Anna called me for help, and I encouraged her to keep telling their story, to share their journey, because people care when you give them something to care about.

These two talents soon proved to be lightning in a bottle, and when they finished 9th at the 2019 49erFX World Championship, which was four places ahead of Steph and Maggie, it was a game on for the USA.

This was the first of two events the USA was using to select their 49erFX team for Tokyo 2020, with the low score finish position from the 2019 and 2020 Worlds to determine selection. And going into the final day of the 2020 Worlds, with Steph and Maggie in 7th with Paris and Anna in 10th, this was must see TV.

If you haven’t heard, Steph and Maggie showed their mettle, finishing 3rd at the 2020 Worlds, the best ever finish for an American team, and earned them Tokyo selection. For their story, click here, and now Paris and Anna share their story on February 16, 2020:

This is definitely the hardest blog we have had to write during our campaign. We finished our campaign yesterday wrapping up the 2020 World Championships in 7th place overall. This was our best finish in an international event and our 4th top 10 finish in the last five events we have sailed. (Another fun fact: only three of the top 10 teams in the 2019 Worlds finished in the top 10 at the 2020 Worlds).

The sailing on the final day of racing was awesome, but a bit rainy and chilly. We had great day of racing in great wind. The day started with two final gold fleet races. We had an awesome first race in which we won. And the second race was not as good on the score sheet, but the comeback that Paris led us on down the last downwind leg, passing eight boats, was awesome and put us in a great position heading into the double point medal race.

We headed in after the two gold fleet races and were sitting in 4th, with 7 points separating 4th from 10th overall. The Medal race was going to be epic and close for everyone involved.

We headed out for the race and were very ready. The boat felt fast and we knew what our plan was. The race got underway and we had a great start, punching off the line and leading out to the left corner. We got to the top mark in 1st with our fellow USA boat in second right behind us.

On the first downwind leg, they managed to soak low of our line and were able to prevent us from gybing so we waited for them to gybe and we followed behind. As we approached the gate mark, both teams were coming in fast. Something happened on their boat where they spun up or something as they were dousing.

We came in expecting them to have a normal douse and follow behind into the mark, however, we carried more speed and got trapped high of them and incurred a penalty trying to avoid contact when our kite touched them. We doused our kite, rounded the mark, spun our circle, and carried on with the race.

At that time we were sitting about 5/6th in the race. We tried to sail fast up the beat and were able to round the top mark in 5th with the German boat right on our hip. As we rounded a lull hit and I hit the water, so our bear away wasn’t quite as smooth as we wanted it to be and the Germans were now to windward of us.

We luffed up as we were setting to try to get them off of us, and despite their kite hitting us, the protest between us was green flagged and they managed to get over the top of us. While this was happening, the world champions rounded behind us and had a clean set and shot ahead of us both. We crossed the line in 7th in the race….

Now for all the math. Because the race was the medal race, all the points are doubled, so first gets 2 points, second gets 4 points, etc. The other USA boat crossed the line in 1st and ended up securing the bronze medal for the world championships. We ended up in a tie for 6th place overall, but because the Danish boat beat us in the race, we lost the tie and ended up 7th overall in the regatta.

And now for the Olympic Trials math. Our two trial events were the two world championships, 2019 and 2020. In 2019, we finished 9th and Steph and Maggie finished 13th. At this event, we finished 7th and they finished 3rd. This put both teams on a tie of points at 16. The tie was to be broken by the best result at the 2020 World Championships, and therefore because they beat us, they win the tie and the win the Olympic berth for Team USA.

We are obviously extremely gutted and heartbroken by the results. And its really sad that our recent successes in events don’t seem that fantastic…but that’s only for now as the wound is still open and raw. In reality, the journey that Paris and I managed to do in the short period of time that we had campaigning was incredible and in a few days time we will be able to look back at it and see it for that.

Most importantly, we have so many people we need to thank for their continued support both financially and emotionally. First, we must thank our families for supporting us 100% in what we were trying to achieve. We really couldn’t have done it without your support. Next we need to thank everyone that contributed financially to our campaign. Most definitely we would not have been able to do nearly as much as we did without you.

With no financial support from our federation, it was you that helped us get to where we are today…the 7th best team in the world! For all the companies that gave us product. Olita, Magic Marine, Fitaid, Lurong,…. thank you! And to everyone who send us encouraging messages, stayed up to the middle of the night watching and cheering us on! Thank you all.

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