Team USA 49erFX sailor Helena Scutt writes about the ups and downs of chasing her Olympic dreams.
With just under two weeks to go until the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, I find myself reflecting on the most formative journey of my 24-year-old life.
I’m an anomaly on the US Olympic Sailing Team in that I did not start sailboat racing until I was 15. However, my Olympic dreams started long before that in a very different sport—soccer. Since I started sailing, countless pull-ups, pushups, squats, and lunges have added 30 pounds of muscle to my skinny frame so that I can quickly and efficiently hoist the “Stars and Stripes” spinnaker once Olympic 49erFX competition begins on August 12.
My earliest memories of sailing involve going to Ivar’s Fish House in Seattle—where I grew up—on a J/24 with my family. But it wasn’t until high school that I finally learned to sail and then race through summer camps at Sail Sand Point and Seattle Yacht Club.
In the spring of 2012, during my sophomore year of college at Stanford University, the 49erFX was chosen for the 2016 Games, finally providing women the opportunity to race a high-performance skiff in the Olympics—16 years after the men.
As one of the fastest sailboats in the Games, the 49erFX is inherently unstable. To keep the boat balanced against the force of the wind on the sails, both the skipper and crew sail just inches above the water hanging on a trapeze suspended from the mast.
One year later, US Sailing Team Sperry paired me with my skipper Paris Henken. The sailing partnership quickly became a deep friendship. We spent the summer of 2013 training on San Francisco Bay before heading off to the first-ever 49erFX World Championships in Marseille, France, in September.
We had high hopes, but glory was not to be ours. Only halfway through the event I was struck in the ribs at full speed by a competitor’s boat leaving me with serious injuries. One of my lumbar vertebrae and two ribs were broken and my left kidney was lacerated.
All of a sudden, my life that had been going full-throttle came to a dramatic slow down. During that time of healing, I realized that sailing was more than something that I enjoyed doing—I needed it. Sailing across the water on that trapeze is one of the things in life that makes me feel most alive. That discovery gave me a newfound perspective and a focus that drove my rehabilitation and my return to the sport.
While my injury was one of the more dramatic hurdles in this journey, there have been many more. After winning the Olympic selection last February, I laid wide-awake in bed thinking of all the failures we’d had and the times when I wondered if it would all be worth it. The thing is, the failures are what make it worth it. Nothing worth doing is easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it.
I finished 129th out of 200 at the 2009 29er Worlds, my first international event—I wasn’t exactly the crew you would have picked to go to the Olympic Games. When Paris and I started sailing, I was 20 and she was only 17. Frankly, we were clueless about how to make our Olympic dream a reality.
After not finishing the 2013 Worlds because of my injury, we missed out on a top 25 finish by a few points—a huge disappointment. At the 2015 Worlds, we missed our second-to-last chance to qualify the USA by just two points.
Finally, at the 2016 Worlds we delivered our best-ever result and finished as the 10th country—a result we hope to improve on in Rio.
We have broken four 49erFX masts. I had surgery on both of my hands last August, just 10 weeks before an Olympic qualifying event. We’ve had to raise more than $200,000 to pay for our equipment, coaching, travel to nine countries on three continents, and accommodation abroad for more than half of each year. There were times when nothing was certain, but we fought through.
Through it all, Paris and I have grown together and hundreds of people have helped us in countless ways to make our dream a reality. I’ve visited dozens of places that I now love, like the Verdon Gorge in southern France, Palma de Mallorca, the tiny Danish fishing village of Glyngøre, Ilha Grande and Itacoatiara in Brazil, and San Isidro in Argentina—places I probably wouldn’t have every been to without sailing.
Along the way, we hope we have inspired many kids, especially girls, to have a growth mindset and work hard at sailing or whatever it is they enjoy.