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An interview with Helena Scutt about her 2020 Olympic campaign

by David Schmidt 18 Jan 2018 08:00 PST January 21-28, 2018
US Sailing/Will Ricketson © Bora Gulari and Helena Scutt train ahead of the 2018 World Cup Series Miami

When it comes to high-performance American sailing aboard Olympic-class boats, Bora Gulari (42; Detroit, MI) and Helena Scutt (25; Kirkland, WA) are easily two of the fastest names on international starting lines. Both sailors competed in the Rio 2016 Olympics, but aboard different boats and with different partners, and now they have teamed-up to create one of the strongest American Olympic partnerships going for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Sadly, calamity struck in late August when Gulari suffered a horrible training accident that cost him two-and-a-half fingers off his right hand. While this would be show-stopper material for most burgeoning teams, both Gulari and Scutt are highly accomplished sailors and individuals, both on and off the water, and they instead used this terrible situation to galvanize their Olympic dreams.

A bit of backstory: In 2013, Scutt was racing 49erFXs with Paris Henken, her partner and skipper for the Rio 2016 Olympics, when the Americans suffered a collision with another boat that sent Scutt to the hospital with a broken spine, two broken ribs and a lacerated left kidney. Again, career-ending material for most teams, however Scutt rallied hard and regained her full strength to qualify for the 2016 Games, where she and Henken finished a highly respectable tenth place (out of 20 boats) despite both sailors being Olympic first-timers.

If this sounds impressive, don’t forget to couple it with the undergraduate and Masters degrees that Scutt was also earning at Stanford University (B.S. in Biomechanical Engineering and a Master’s in Mechanical Engineering with a concentration in Mechatronics, the later of which she completed in June of 2017), and you’re starting to get an impression of the team’s abilities.

As for Gulari, himself a graduate of the University of Michigan with a degree in Aerospace Engineering (2001), his sailing resume is the stuff of dreams, including 2009 and 2013 Moth World Championships and a 2009 Rolex US Yachtsman of the Year award, as well as TP52 experience aboard Quantum Racing for their 2017 season. Next, consider the fact that Gulari is also one of the smartest sailors (and nicest guys) around, and it was only natural that he would also press as hard as possible to achieve a full recovery prior to the 2020 Olympic qualification process.

Now, on the eve of the 2018 World Cup Series in Miami (January 21-28), I caught up with Scutt via email to learn more about the team’s campaign, Gulari’s recovery, and where they are at as a team, prior to the first warning guns of the 2018 season.

Can you tell us a little bit about the accident that cost Bora his fingers? Also, were you guys racing or practicing?

We were foiling while bearing away around the offset mark (after the windward mark) in a coach-run practice race. It was in La Grande Motte, France, a few days before the 2017 World Championship.

Our conclusion is the traveler line was wrapped around Bora’s right hand, so when he went flying forwards it took his fingers off. We feel like we could have had the same pitchpole 1,000 more times without that outcome.

Now Bora has 1/3 of his index finger, 2/3 of his middle finger, and his ring finger is a little shorter and the surgeons had to move some skin around on that finger.

While I know full well that Bora is one of the absolute best American sailors of his generation, we both know that Olympic medals are often determined by fraction-of-a-second decisions and tactical executions—how much of a hurdle/handicap does his injury place on your campaign to make the 2020 U.S. Olympic squad and, ultimately, to medal at Tokyo?

If you know Bora, you know that all this accident did was sharpen the sword. He’s now more focused and determined than before. It takes incredible courage and dedication to get back on the horse again, let alone just seven weeks after a terrible accident.

In our first year of campaigning together, we’ve leaned on each other through more than most duos ever will. I had a brutal sailing accident of my own four years ago, and so being able to somewhat relate to what he’s been through and support him continues to help me make the best out of that.

There’s no shortcut or ‘hack’ to that kind of team bond, and we’ve turned what would be a dream-ending incident for many into a competitive advantage. By the way, his grip strength in his injured hand is already stronger than mine!

Will the 2018 Miami OCR be your first major regatta since Bora’s injury?

We’ll race a relatively informal Midwinter regatta before that. After a year of training together, these two January regattas in Miami will be our first regattas together, ever!

Can you tell us about your team’s mindset and objectives sailing into Miami?

As our first regatta as a team, and after all we’ve fought through, we’re excited to finally race. We won’t be at full speed (yet…) but it’ll be a joy to be back on the course. That’s a win.

The real focus is our racing communication in preparation for the 2018 Worlds in early August, which is the first 2020 Olympic country qualifier.

After spending almost a year in the Nacra 17, can you compare and contrast the fast cat to the 49erFX that you raced in the last quad? What boat is a harder challenge to sail competitively and why?

Every boat has its own challenges and rhythm. Mastering the 49erFX prepared me as well as any boat could because it teaches so much about boat balance, mainsail trim, agility, and the tactics of high-performance boats.

There are way more similarities-main, jib, spinnaker, two trapezes, high-speed, tactics-than differences–an extra hull, sitting on a trampoline between races, foils, mast rotation, [and] only half the flying blond ponytails of my 49erFX days…

The 49erFX made me hyperaware of roll and yaw, and then the foiling in the Nacra 17 adds the extra dimension of ride height coupled with pitch. I’m so lucky, getting to sail two awesome high-performance Olympic boats with phenomenal teammates.

How much time (as a percentage of your overall focus) are the Tokyo 2020 Olympics right now for you compared to your graduate work at Stanford? What about for Bora? Also, how do you see these percentages changing as we start to approach the 2020 Games and its selection process for country/team berths?

Tokyo 2020 is 100-percent of my focus and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I finished my Master’s degree at Stanford in Mechanical Engineering in June, 10 months after Rio. It was an intense year, to say the least. I flew to Miami or Detroit every other weekend to train with Bora, sometimes three days in Miami, four days at Stanford, then three days in Miami, and hitting the gym in the morning before spending countless hours in the Smart Product Design Lab (my concentration was Mechatronics).

In lab, the glow of my circuits and code on the computer screen turned into the sunrise more times than I care to count. Sailing and studying is exhausting but it’s two incredible opportunities that I had to make the most of.

It was really cool to build robots with a team and use the skills of communication (kind of necessary when four people are writing thousands of lines of shared code, or deciding when to tack and cross after the start), performance under pressure (when your circuit suddenly stops working at 3 AM, or when you’re being match-raced in the Olympic Trials), and positivity (when debugging code for the third day in a row, or when you’re watching the Worlds from the coachboat, gutted that your skipper is at home, and will be in a lot of pain for a long time).

I could go on forever-sailing and engineering are so connected, especially in this newly foiling and very technical Nacra 17 class. It’s really fun learning more about aero and hydrodynamics from Bora.

What coaches are you working with for this quad and how does their advice/coaching/guidance differ from the coaching that you received during your 49erFX campaign?

We are incredibly fortunate and honored to be working with Sir David Howlett, Randy Smyth, and Jonathan McKee. Paris and I were a very young team (just 17 and 20 when we started) and boatspeed and boathandling were our strengths, so we focused on strategy and tactics.

In contrast, now Bora has a lot of racing experience, and of course I have more now too. So with the new boat we are focused on boatspeed (stability is not trivial in the Nacra) and boathandling. It’s early days, and you have to break it down before you can piece it together.

Are you and Bora experiencing a different level of pressure or expectation this quad, as returning Olympic veterans, than what you both experienced going into the 2016 Games as Olympic first-timers? Also, if you are felling increased pressure, is this internal or external?

I only feel the self-created pressure right now to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But I have felt that all my life with anything I do that I really care about, so that’s nothing new.

In 2016, Paris, our coaches and I focused on the process of improvement, rather than results. You can control one but not the other… the result was delivering our career-best result at the Olympic Games. So I think that’s a good place to start!

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

Follow along: www.facebook.com/gulariscutt

www.Gulariscuttracing.com

Instagram: @helenas9, @bora_sailing

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