It’s a brand new Olympic sport: women’s high-performance 49erFX skiff sailing. A Stanford graduate will be one of the first American women to take on what looks more like a high-wire performance than a sail boat race.
“It’s called trapezing,” Scutt said. “We’re about a foot off the water’s surface and only our toes are actually touching the boat.”
A harness and some wire are all that keeps Olympic sailing duo Helena Scutt, 23, and Paris Henken, 20, from hitting ocean waters.
It’s the first time women’s 49erFX will be part of the Olympic games. The men’s skiff race was added 16 years ago in Sydney.
“I think people didn’t think women were interested because it was so high performance,” Scutt guessed.
At Stanford Rowing and Sailing Center in Redwood City, where she spent her afternoons during college, Scutt tells NBC Bay Area News she dreamed of going to the Olympics since she was a girl. However, at first, for a different sport.
“I was obsessed with soccer and when I burned out of that was when my dad was like, ‘Hey you’ve been doing sailing summer camps, do you want to give racing a try?’” Scutt said, explaining she started sailing at 15.
The challenging nature of the sport, plus the fact few women were participating in 49erFX sailing at the time, was what attracted Scutt to the sport and kept her going, despite adversity.
During her senior year of college, the Seattle native was sailing at the world championships when a competitor’s boat hit her in the ribs.
“I broke my spine. I broke two ribs and I lacerated my left kidney so lots of internal bleeding. It wasn’t good,” Scutt said.
Somehow, the super sailor only needed a few months to heal – no surgery necessary. Her quick recovery and then qualifying for the Games were no surprise to her coaches.
“It seemed like the Olympics were always in her blood,” said Clinton Hayes, assistant sailing coach at Stanford.
However, there would be financial challenges in store for Scutt and Henken too.
“Olympic sailing -- it’s like a startup or a small business. You really need to get your funding off the ground. It’s an expensive sport,” Scutt said, explaining sailing’s $150,000-a-year price tag means Olympic hopefuls like her spend much of their time out of the water fundraising.
She and Henken met their goal by going to private donors and crowdsourcing, which come with added pressures. Scutt says she doesn’t want to let their supporters down.
Still, she doesn’t want to be distracted by the pressures or what’s in the water. Sailing is one sport that puts athletes close to or in the waters of Guanabara Bay, which the Brazilian government has been trying to clean up for years.
“When we’re there, we’re focused on understanding the current and the wind, the way it wraps around the hills, that we’re not really thinking about that,” Scutt said.
After all, she says, the point is to stay out of the water.