Amid a slew of fears with regard to safety, sewage and gas station bathrooms, the Summer Olympics managed to captivate millions of viewers as it dominated the sports world for two weeks in Rio de Janeiro.
Sending 11 sailors from the varsity sailing program to the Summer Olympics over the past 50 years, the College of Charleston sailing team has a history of success that knows no bounds.
Few freshmen at the College can claim to be among the best in the world in a chosen profession, but 20-year-old Paris Henken can.
After finishing as one of the top ten boats in the Rio Games and qualifying for the medal race, Henken faces a dilemma. Her current graduation plan could put her goals for Tokyo 2020 in jeopardy.
“I was a freshman in 2014 in the fall right after I graduated high school,” Henken said. “And then I basically knew I wanted to go to the Olympics so I had to stop. So I took a leave of absence for basically a year and a half and this is my first semester back since 2014. I’m a second semester freshman.“
Since the Olympics ended, Henken has put a hold on Olympic sailing to focus on school and college sailing. “Before I came, my thought process was that I’ll do as much as I can and then probably take another leave of absence, but now that I’m here I kind of want to do all of it at once and then focus on it. But we honestly have not thought that far ahead.”
With great results come greater expectations as Henken has competed on the highest stage once already and is thinking about the next step for U.S. Sailing.
“The first Olympics you do is kind of like, ‘oh the experience,’ and you do your best, but after that you strive to medal in the next one,” Henken said. “But like I said, we’re not sure how much we are going to commit to 2020 yet. If we want to medal it’s going to be a lot.”
Born and raised in San Diego, California, Henken grew up playing soccer, baseball and swimming in addition to learning to sail at age 6.
Henken dedicated herself to a sailing regimen instead of continuing to play team sports. The possibility of sailing at the highest level presented itself in her junior year of high school.
Training with Anna Tunnicliffe, a gold medalist in the laser fleet during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, gave Henken a clear view of what it takes to dominate at the highest level. When Tunnicliffe retired to compete in the CrossFit Games, there was a new opening atop the pool of American talent.
Unlike her Charleston teammates who qualified by sailing in the laser fleet of sailboats, which are sailed individually, Henken qualified alongside Helena Scutt, a 2015 Stanford graduate and co-captain of the varsity sailing team, sailing in a fleet of boats that made its Olympic premier in the 2016 Rio Games, the 49erFX.
“This was the first time that the 49erFX was to race [in the Olympics]. So everyone was fairly new to the boat.”
Scutt is 3 years older than Henken. As some of the only girls competing in the class, they gravitated to one another. “Helena and I knew each other for a long time before we sailed together. Once the 49erFX was developed the U.S. Sailing team coaches put us together and we just never stopped sailing.”
The duo won bronze at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games before qualifying for the Olympics based on their performance at two major events; the Sailing World Cup Miami in January, and the 49erFX World Championship in Clearwater, Fla. in February.
“We only had made a couple other medal races… we weren’t always medal race contenders, so for the Olympics to get to the medal race, we were like, ‘We have to do it; we want to do it.’”
Though it is in the distant future, the possibility of the Olympics being a ‘home game’ remains. “Maybe in 2024, the games will be in [Los Angeles] and that’s an hour and a half from where I live. So that honestly would be like a dream. It would be a perfect scenario.”
Henken was one of three student-Olympians from the Charleston sailing team to qualify in the Rio Games. Enrique Arathoon and Stefano Peshiera made their first appearance in the Olympics, representing El Salvador and Peru, respectively.
Every Olympic Games brings its own batch of drama from incomplete facilities to safety concerns. Yet this year, the storylines surrounding the controversies dictated more of the coverage than the games themselves.
“You mean the Ryan Lochte story?” Henken said. “I actually hadn’t heard about that until I left.”
Lochte’s antics sparked attention, but its lack of influence on the athletes raises questions about the focus of the coverage. As a result, there was an apparent need to probe for what else has been misreported.
“There’s lots of people that say the village is like a big orgy,” Henken said. “They do have condom dispensers in the cafeteria, in the gym and in the bathrooms. It was kind of fun one day, we sat by the machine just to see if someone was actually going to go up and get them. Some people did, but [we] never saw any weirdness or anything.”
The fascination with the Olympic experience as a first time qualifier was greater than just the sexual exploits of the world’s finest athletes. In no instance was this more apparent than when Henken had the chance to walk among the 558 qualifiers from the United States in the Parade of Nations.
“It was really cool, especially to be around people that are relatively famous like Michael Phelps. We kind of fought to be in the front next to him because you just don’t get to stand next to someone that successful. It was a really, really cool experience and it was amazing. Everyone looked at you as though you were some star. It was five seconds of fame but it was really cool.
*This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of The Yard.
Editor’s note: In the magazine a byline was not printed for this article. Our apologies to the author and photographer of this piece for not receiving credit for their hard work.