Henken achieved that status before she even competed for the powerful College of Charleston sailing team. After attending the school for the fall semester as a freshman in 2014, the California native took a year and a half off to focus on her Olympic campaign in the 49erFX.
Henken and teammate Helena Scutt achieved their dreams by earning the lone United States berth in that skiff class to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Henken, a San Diego resident, was only 20 years old at the time – far younger than the average American Olympic sailor.
“The (U.S. Olympic) Trials were definitely a stressful moment, but once it was over and we had won it was the greatest feeling,” Henken said. “We were super excited and so proud of ourselves for what we had accomplished. It was a long process, but in the end it really paid off.”
Fast forward a few years and Henken is now a sophomore at College of Charleston, competing for the women’s sailing team as B Division skipper. She and crew Liza Toppa recently placed third at the Emily Wick Regatta to help the Cougars capture the overall victory.
This weekend, Henken is taking a break from a busy collegiate sailing schedule to compete in Sperry Charleston Race Week, skippering an VX One along with two of her teammates. On Friday morning at Carolina Yacht Club, just prior to launching for the first day of the regatta, Henken took time to reflect on she became one of the youngest Olympic sailors in U.S. history.
Henken and her siblings – older brother Hans and twin brother Sterling – were introduced to sailing while living in San Clemente, CA. Ed and Tamra Henken moved the family to Coronado Island, largely because the youth sailing program was more sophisticated. Paris had participated in soccer, swimming and dance as a kid, but found a passion for sailing just prior starting fifth grade. She started training in the Sabot class before moving into the 29er.
It was Charlie McKee, neighbor of the Henken family, two-time Olympic medalist and the High Performance Director for US Sailing saw talent and potential in Henken and encouraged her to pursue a campaign in the 49erFX.
“Charlie was the mentor who really got me going in the class and helped me through the process of pursuing the Olympics,” said Henken, whose family regularly went on trips with McKee and his family.
Henken began her Olympic campaign as a junior at Coronado High and reached her ultimate goal when she and Scutt earned the U.S. berth based off their performance at two major events – the Sailing World Cup Miami and the 49erFX World Championship. Scutt, a Stanford graduate who had been co-captain of the varsity sailing team there, said “I feel very lucky to get to sail with Paris because I know she has something special.”
Henken and Scutt represented themselves quite well at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, with an impressive first place race and placing 10th out of 20 entries in 49erFX class.
“Our goal was to finish in the top 10 and we felt very good about achieving that,” Henken said. “We wanted to make the medal race on the last day and we did that as well so we were very happy with our performance overall.”
Henken, who called her overall Olympic experience and spending time in Rio “unbelievable,” said her only regret was not being more prepared for the medal race that is designed specifically for television and spectators.
“Helena and I didn’t do many medal races competitions throughout our campaign so that was kind of different for us. We weren’t really used to the short-course, tight racing,” she said. “I think maybe the medal race day is something we could have trained for more.”
Henken is happy to be back at the College of Charleston and competing for the women’s team, which is loaded with top-notch talent. Sailing the Club 420 and Flying Junior that are used for collegiate racing is a big change from steering a high-speed skiff, but she adapted quickly.
“Paris is a great collegiate sailor with a very bright future. She obviously has the talent and the temperament. She is very dedicated and works really, really hard,” said Greg Fisher, Director of Sailing for College of Charleston.
“Paris came from a background of sailing skiffs that go really fast and the tactics are a little bit different. Now she’s sailing the 420 and FJ and has done a great job of making that transition,” Fisher added. “Paris is having a great season and is just super to have on the team. I notice that other sailors on our team watch her to see what it takes to compete at a really high level.”
Henken may be an accomplished Olympian, but that does not automatically make her the top sailor on the College of Charleston women’s team. That honor goes to sophomore Alie Toppa, who skippers A Division with junior Annabel Carrington as crew.
Henken is back again this year with Alie Toppa handling the middle of the boat and Carrington working the bow. That College of Charleston entry, which is a sailing a boat borrowed from Paul Murphy, have gotten off to a decent start and stand 14th out of 25 boats after two days of racing.
“Things are very competitive within our team. We have at least 18 boats on the water for practice each day,” Henken said. “We’ve been doing really well this spring and we’re very excited for nationals in May. We’re all one big happy family and get along really well. I love being part of this team.”
Fisher recommended that Henken compete in Sperry Charleston Race Week last year and she did, finishing fifth out of 14 boats in VX One class despite never previously stepping foot in the boat.
“We wanted to do the regatta again because we had so much fun last year,” Henken said. “Everyone in the fleet is really nice and super helpful. We’re very appreciative of Paul Murphy lending us the boat and all the other sailors giving us tips about how to sail it.”
Henken said the VX One is somewhat similar to the 49erFX, especially in terms of downwind tactics. “We’re still trying to figure out the boat, but we’re excited about being a part of the regatta,” she said.
College of Charleston has a large contingent of sailing team members participating in Sperry Charleston Race Week 2018. Fisher believes it is important to expose the collegiate sailors to other types of sailing such as this and there is no better opportunity than at the largest keelboat regatta in North America.
“I think it’s really neat those girls are doing the regatta and are having a blast. I think they learn a lot by competing here in Charleston Race Week. It’s going to help their camaraderie for one thing and it’s just a different experience sailing-wise,” Fisher said. “One of the things that’s real important to all of us involved with the sport, especially me, is to foster a life-long love of sailing. We want them to continue competing once they are done with college sailing.”
Henken is now 22 years old and planning a 49erFX campaign for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. She has brought Anna Tunnicliffe aboard as crew and will take the next two years off from college in order to train and compete internationally.
Tunnicliffe is a female sailing legend in her own right, having captured the gold medal in the Laser Radial class at the 2008 Beijing games. Tunnicliffe, a four-time Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year, is coming out of retirement to race with Henken.
“Anna is a very intense and focused athlete. It’s such a great opportunity and privilege to be able to sail with her and I cannot wait to get started,” said Henken, who intends to ramp up her Olympic campaign beginning in June.
That Olympic pedigree made Henken an ideal choice to serve as one of the “celebrity” skippers for the Pro-Am Regatta that is held each year at Sperry Charleston Race Week.