She can bend with the wind. Both literally and figuratively.

Watch Paris Henken sail in the 49er FX class and you’ll observe a kinetic blend of ballet and circus performance taking place just inches above the water’s surface. For competitors of this type of sailing, the 49er FX is a unique combination of strength, agility and strategy – an athletic chess match at a whistling 20 knots (or 23 miles per hour).

“The boat goes fast,” Henken points out, “and we do hang off the side of the boat. One minute, you’re standing up; then the next, you’re trapezing off the side, if there is enough wind. You always have to be on your toes and be good with your balance. And you definitely have to think two steps ahead.”

Henken and her sailing partner, Helena Scutt, were always thinking two steps ahead as they represented the U.S. in this new class of sailing, which debuted at the Rio Olympic Games this summer. The West Coast duo (Henken from Coronado, Calif., and Scutt from Kirkland, Wash.) qualified for the Olympics after competing around the globe, from claiming a bronze medal in the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto to finishing in the top tier in regattas in Finland, Germany, France and Spain.

Although the waters of Rio’s Guanabara Bay commanded headlines before the Games for being trash strewn and bacteria laden, Henken and her teammate never lost focus and advanced to the medal race, finishing 10th. It was a magical run for the College’s first female Olympian – the culmination of a lifelong dream.

And Henken was not alone in representing the Cougars on the world’s stage in Brazil. Two of her teammates from the sailing program and a College sailing alum were also doing their best to bring glory (and medals) to their home countries in the men’s Laser class: Stefano Peschiera (Peru), Enrique “Quique” Arathoon (El Salvador) and three-time Olympian Juan Maegli ’13 (Guatemala). Maegli reached the medal race and finished his Olympic best at 8th place.

“They all had spectacular races,” says Greg Fisher, director of the sailing program. “It’s incredible the commitment and effort they all make, and it was amazing to watch our own Olympians pursue their dreams.”

That commitment was something Fisher observed and admired on and off the water: “Paris, Stefano and Quique are all solid students, and they never compromised their studies or grades. To see them work and perform the best they could – whether it was racing, training or studying – was really impressive. Frankly, the drive and determination that they poured into their campaign to be an Olympian was amazing.”

And that drive, passion and focus will carry all of them into the next Games and beyond – as sure as the wind blows.