After the crash: How two U.S. sailors overcame fear to make the Olympic team
In September 2013, Helena Scutt and Paris Henken were racing one of the fastest -- and newest -- sailboats added to the Rio Olympics. Henken, then 17, was a high school junior and Scutt was a junior at Stanford -- and they were representing the United States at the 49erFX world championships in Marseille, France.
On the fourth day of racing, the two athletes were sailing upwind, their bodies fully outstretched over the water. As they approached a turnaround point, a German boat, going the opposite direction, was suddenly heading straight at them.
A slew of other boats were packed tightly around them. There was nowhere to escape. Collision was inevitable.
But the two boats didn't hit head-on. Instead, the German monohull rammed into Scutt's torso at full force.
"I don't know if they didn't see us or what," said Scutt, who was sailing closest to the bow. "They didn't make a move to avoid us because if they did, they'd heel and I wouldn't have been hit where I was."
In the end, Scutt's left side absorbed the entire impact of the crash. The force also catapulted Henken into the Mediterranean. When race traffic finally dissipated, a motorboat made its way to the sailors. Scutt was pulled in, badly hurt.
"She didn't want to be touched, but she wanted her gear off," Henken recalled. "I lifted up her shirt and her whole side was black and red."
Scutt broke two ribs, lacerated a kidney, and fractured a vertebra in her lower back.
None of it required surgery, but when Scutt was discharged from the French hospital and reunited with Henken at their apartment in Marseille, Henken was emotionally distraught. As the skipper, Henken was steering.
"I kept saying, 'I should have done more. I should have done more,'" Henken said, "and she kept reassuring me that it wasn't my fault," even though, technically, the German boat had the right of way.
Scutt also reassured her that the crash wouldn't mark the end of their career together.
"I'm still amazed," Henken said. "She was so motivated. She knew right away she wanted to continue. And I was fully on-board, although I definitely wasn't going to force her into it one way or another."
Scutt lost about 12 pounds of muscle mass during her recovery from the accident, but her range of motion was fine, and by late January 2014, she was back in the 49erFX.
"I was scared -- definitely -- of close situations in a fast boat," Scutt said, yet she knew that every day she raced, her boat would be going in the same direction as it had in 2013 and face other boats coming around the buoy the same way that the German boat did. "It's inevitable," she said.
Nevertheless, two years later, Scutt, now 24, and Henken, now 20, qualified for the Rio Olympics.
During a break in their Olympic preparations, the duo discussed how they overcame their trepidations and reestablished their trust -- and the advice they'd give to other athletes who've been in bad accidents.
Scutt could see that Henken was devastated because she had been steering. "I kept telling her that it wasn't her fault. No one wants that guilt," she said. Scutt was right.
"After she reassured me that I wasn't to blame," Henken said, "that was enough for me to get over my emotional fear."
Talk to the pros
Before Scutt got back in the boat, she consulted a sports psychologist. "He could tell I was passionate," she said. "His advice was not to push myself too soon. He said ease into it and look long term."
She also got help from her teammate. "Reach out to people," Henken advised. "They're there to help. I'm really lucky to have Helena and she's lucky to have me. We were so strong before, and we immediately bonded even more. If an incident happens, make sure you lean on someone else; don't do it alone."
Give yourself time for the memory to fade
"I think [this] happens to a lot of people who have trauma, Scutt said. "The split second I knew that the boat was going to hit but I couldn't do anything about it -- that snapshot kept running through my mind all night for several days. Now I can barely remember it. My mind has protectively shut it off. It's faded to black and white. All those memories -- the whole day, is very vague now."
Remind yourself of the risk in everything
Sailing is inherently risky and despite her broken bones, Scutt decided, "to me, the risk is worth it. I know we're all racing really close, but wouldn't be my sport if I was in a slow boat and everyone was far away. That's not what I do."
Put it in context
Scutt began to view the crash as a small part of her entire career. "When I got hurt, I thought a lot about all the sacrifices I'd made to get to that point," she said, "and it made me want to push forward and keep going. I thought: This is just one more sacrifice that would make everything more meaningful."
Henken added, "Nothing's going to hold you back but yourself."
Be kind to yourself when you go back
Even now, Scutt said, "I still get nervous, and Paris knows it. I'm working on it. When we're hanging off the side, I pull up my shoulders and lean into the boat because when [the accident] happened, I was lying fully stretched out. For me to say I'm never going to lift my shoulders again isn't realistic, so I wasn't too hard on myself when I knew I was leaning up. Now, every time I'm out there, I find myself safely trapezing for a little longer.
"Or Paris will say, 'I need your weight' [meaning lean back]. At first, I thought, 'C'mon, you're not the one that got hurt.' But that's ridiculous. Or she'll remind me, 'We're fine. I got this' -- which is important. If she's cowering in the boat with me, we're not going to win medals. If she's scared, she'll feed my fear."
Know your own role
You can't control everything. Scutt explained, "On a double-handed [two-person] boat, our roles are very different. Paris steers. As crew, I do everything else. I can't hop back and grab the tiller. It's not my job. So I need to trust, and I do trust Paris to make a call in a crowd."
Enjoy each day as an athlete
All told, Scutt said, "The accident made me realize that things can change in a split second and you might as well be doing what you love because you don't know what will happen tomorrow."