Watch out, Brazil! If you thought mosquitos transmitting the Zika virus were going to be your biggest challenge at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, then you haven’t met Coronado’s own Paris Henken! Along with partner Helena Scutt, Paris will sail a 49erFX as it makes its debut in the Olympics.
Twenty year old Paris Henken was born in the mountains of Sonora, California, and spent her early childhood in San Clemente, California. In San Clemente Paris and her twin brother Sterling, as well as their older brother Hans, became active in sailing. Right before she and Sterling started fifth grade, the Henken family, headed by parents Ed and Tamra, made the decision to move to Coronado specifically because, Paris says, “There was a better racing program in Coronado.”
As a child Paris participated in a variety of activities including soccer, swimming, dance, and playing baseball on the same team as Sterling. It was when she was just six years old that Paris, a 2014 graduate of Coronado High School, became interested in sailing. How did she become involved in sailing at such a young age? “Both my parents weren’t really into it. They did it for leisure,” Paris says. When Hans expressed interest in taking a sailing course, Tamra signed up the twins as well. “Sailing was just one of those activities that just never stopped,” she explains. “We just got really into it, and eventually all the other sports just stopped, and we just kept sailing.”
To this day sailing remains a passion for not only Paris, but for both of her brothers as well. “My twin sails for his college. My older brother is twenty-three, and has already graduated from college. He sailed for his college as well. He’s campaigning for the Olympics as well,” Paris says. “His [Hans] aim is for 2020,” she adds.
What is it about sailing that made Paris decide to pursue it more so than the other sports with which she was involved? “The specific boat that I sail is very fast so a lot of people will talk about how the speed is awesome,” she says, and then continues, “But sailing is also a mind game. You have to be able to position yourself against other boats correctly. If two boats are coming together, you have to know whether to go away from them or duck them. Also there’s the component with the water. You’re always in the water, and you have to figure out the balance between the water, the wind, and the current. It’s one of those sports that’s based on Mother Nature. If there’s no wind, you can’t go sailing. If there’s too much wind, you can’t go sailing. Some factors you just can’t control.”
Paris goes on to say, “Lots of people don’t understand sailing, and don’t even think it’s an Olympic sport, but when you really watch it, you’ll see that it’s difficult.” Besides the fact that competitive sailing is so mentally engaging, it’s also physically taxing and can be dangerous. Paris prepares for sailing by spending lots of hours at the gym doing agility exercises and weight-lifting. “Sailing uses every muscle in your body, especially your brain,” she says, and includes “mental games” as part of her training.
When did making it to the Olympics become a goal for Paris? “It was always a dream of mine,” she says, and adds, “It became a reality when I was a junior in high school.” At the time Paris was sailing a 29er with a male partner, who lived in Newport Beach. The distance between their respective homes made training together difficult, and after partnering together for three years, they went their separate ways. It was around that same time that the 49erFX, the sailboat Paris will be sailing in the Olympics, started being developed. “I jumped right into it,” Paris says. She believes the timing couldn’t have been any more perfect.
Paris credits her mentor and family friend, Charlie McKee, US Sailing Team Sperry’s US Sailing High-Performance Director, for motivating her to pursue making it to the Olympics. “He came to me, and said, ‘I think you have great talent, and I think you could totally make it to the [Olympic] games, but you’re going to have to make a lot of sacrifices,'” she explains.
What kinds of sacrifices has Paris had to make to make her Olympic dreams a reality? She’s had to put her college education on hold for the time being. Upon her graduation from high school, Paris completed a semester at The College of Charleston in South Carolina. She knew she wanted to compete in the Olympics, but wanted to start college just in case her Olympic quest didn’t come to fruition. “I plan to go back in the fall, right after the [Olympic] games,” she explains. When asked what her major is, Paris said, “I have no idea. My Dad is an orthodontist, and I might lean toward that or something dental related.” For the time being though, Paris is content to push the pause button on her educational ambitions to focus on training for the Olympics.
This year’s Olympics will be especially exciting not only because it’s the Olympic debut of the 49er FX, but also because Paris makes her Olympic debut with her sailing partner Helena Scutt. How did Paris and Helena become sailing partners? “Helena and I have actually been really good friends since I was twelve,” Paris says. “She [Helena] sailed the 29er as well, but she sailed with another girl, and we raced against each other for a while. When the boat [49erFX] got developed, she [Helena] sailed with someone else, but that didn’t really work out. She basically was on the same track as I was, but she was already in college. When I was looking for someone to sail with, Charlie McKee asked us to fly down to Miami for the weekend for a training camp. We both flew down there, and were paired up, and never looked back.”
Helena is known for being “the head” of their sailing duo while Paris is known for being “the heart.” They each play their own role, and have to work together to make each voyage a success. Besides being sailing partners since 2013, Paris and Helena are also good friends. “She actually dates my brother,” Paris explains, “so we’re like one big family.” “She’s definitely like my sister,” Paris says with a smile as she talks about her special relationship with Helena.
Who will be coaching Paris and Helena at the Olympics? “I’ve gone through many coaches. I’m on the US Sailing Team Sperry, and at first when we started sailing they had designated coaches for us. Eventually as we got better, we got to pick.” Paris and Helena worked with a coach from Argentina for about two years, but then decided to start training with coach Willie McBride. “Willie coached us throughout both of our trial events, and then we decided that he’ll be our [Olympic] games coach as well,” Paris says.
Which countries does Paris anticipate will prove to be the greatest opponents at this summer’s Olympic games? Because their class of sailing ship is new, it may be hard to predict, but Paris says, “The past three years there have been some people who’ve been at the top. Brazil, for example, has been at the top for a while.” She lists New Zealand and Denmark amongst the top as well, but then acknowledges that there are always surprises. “At our last world championships, the podiums switched. People who we thought were going to win didn’t do very well, and the people who were ‘good’ at the start excelled.” Spain, Germany, and Denmark were among those countries who took home prizes at the last world championships. “It literally could be anyone,” Paris surmises.
Fortunately for Paris, she has a lot of international sailing experience. Paris started out sailing the Sabot series, which was not part of international competitions, but when she started sailing the 29er at age twelve, she began sailing against people from all over the world, including Germany and Italy.
As far as Brazil, home of the 2016 Summer Olympics, is concerned, Paris has sailed there before two separate times, once in the summer and once in the winter. Does Paris have any concerns about the Zika virus? The Zika virus, which is transmitted by mosquitos, has been a major concern for Olympic planners and athletes because there have been confirmed cases in Brazil. “I haven’t been there since they announced the Zika virus,” Paris says. “I actually didn’t get bitten by any mosquitoes while I was there,” she remarks about her previous visits to Brazil. “Our team of experts have tested everything, and they’ve given us precautions. I’m not really worried it,” she says of the Zika virus.
The Zika virus won’t be scaring away her family either. The Henken family will be cheering on Paris and Helena in Rio de Janeiro. It will be so meaningful for Paris to know that her brothers are there she says, ” because I wouldn’t have been doing this if it wasn’t for them.” Of her parents, Paris says that they have “definitely pushed me, and I appreciate everything they’ve done,” she says. She adds, “We lived in San Clemente, and my Dad had started a dental practice there. He still has it, and he has to drive an hour every day to and from work just so we could move here. They’ve made lots of sacrifices, and I’m so grateful.”
Paris looks forward to not only sailing and making her family proud, she looks forward to representing the United States in this first year that the 49erFX makes its Olympic debut, and she anxiously awaits walking in the Olympic opening ceremonies. Knowing full well that the United States will be one of the last countries introduced because countries are introduced at the opening ceremonies in alphabetical order, Paris is eager to experience again what she felt last year when she participated in the Pan American Games in July. Her face lights up as she talks about the thrill of standing in the tunnel with everyone waiting to be announced, and how it’s such a “cool” feeling being part of it.
The Olympics will also be an opportunity for Paris to foster friendships with athletes from all over the world. “I’m looking forward to meeting a lot of new people,” she says. “It’s fun because you get to hear their stories and how they got here [to the Olympics], and you get to tell them your story.”
Most Coronado residents won’t be able to make it to Rio de Janeiro to support Paris, but rest assured that Olympic sailing will be televised so we can all cheer her on from the comfort of our homes. Additionally Coronado can show Paris their support by attending a local fundraiser at the Coronado Yacht Club. The date has not been set yet as it depends upon Paris’ sailing schedule, but it will take place “sometime in April,” Paris says. People can also support Paris and Helena’s journey as they prepare for the Olympic games in August by following their Henken/Scutt Sailing web page as well as liking their Facebook page Paris & Helena: Sailing to 2016.
In the meanwhile Paris continues to train, traveling to wherever her next event takes her. The next two events will take place in Spain, and then Paris will be returning to the Crown City sometime after April 17th for a short break. Paris says, “Coronado is a great town to grow up in, and I’m really proud to be from here.”
Paris encourages the children of Coronado who are inspired by her Olympic endeavors to be well-balanced when choosing their activities. “I think it’s awesome to choose to try lots of different sports and activities,” she says. She enthusiastically urges kids to “always have fun,” and says, “I know one day they will find something they will love!” Sounds like great advice! We wish Paris and Helena nothing but smooth sailing in Rio de Janeiro this August! No need to say, “Make us proud, Paris!” You already do!
For a video of Paris and Helena, click this link: http://uncharted.