Tuesday, 18 February 2020
JOHN COLLINS has a score to settle. The Leander Club athlete says that rarely a day goes by when he doesn’t think about his fifth place in the Olympic final of the double sculls four years ago.
That race with Jonny Walton haunts him, he says, but has also been a source of motivation as he looks to right the wrongs of Rio in Tokyo this summer.
Collins, 31, who lives in Upton Close, Henley, says he is now in peak physical condition and, after qualifying the boat for the Games with Graeme Thomas in September, is hoping to return from the Far East with “something shiny” around his neck.
It’s a long way from the 15-year-old who was “awful” at all sports and only tried rowing as part of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme back in 2005.
At the time Collins was pupil at Orleans Park, a co-educational secondary school in Twickenham.
He says: “I was quite a chunky kid as well so that didn’t help — I was always bad at kicking, catching and throwing. I played a little bit of rugby but the only reason I was any good was because I could bulldoze people.
“I took up the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme and as part of that you have to do some sort of physical activity and I was scratching my head a bit. I was thinking I would do something like the discus or shot put.
“My dad was a rower and his dad before him was a rower as well. I’d done a bit on the rowing machine and didn’t really like it but thought I’d give it another go.”
Collins was then living in Twickenham with his father Philip, who rowed for Auriol Kensington, and mother Kathy.
He started at Putney Town Rowing Club under the watchful eye of Geoff Adams and John Comer, two veterans of the club.
“Geoff took me out in a double,” says Collins. “It was cold, it was windy and I was awful and nearly fell in a whole load of times. I really didn’t enjoy it until I came back and my dad asked Geoff how the double was and he turned around and said ‘I couldn’t keep up’.
“As a kid who had zero self-esteem as far as sport was concerned, that was me completely sold. I wanted to do it because someone told me I was good at it.”
Collins took to the sport quickly and found he was soon recording better times than most of the men at the club.
He says: “I was always trying to work out ways of doing it better so I was improving very fast to the point where I thought, ‘I need to take this a bit more seriously’.”
He was then taken on by his first proper coach, a former Irish prison guard called Seamus Keating.
“He taught me what it would take to achieve the success I wanted and opened my eyes to how tough rowing could be and therefore how tough I needed to be,” said Collins.
“He introduced me to competition. For me, I’m not a naturally competitive person and don’t feel I need to beat other people. The only person I’m really competing with is myself and I really enjoy the process of self-improvement.”
After a few months, Collins moved on as he felt he needed to train with rowers better than him in order to improve himself.
He joined the Tideway Scullers School in 2006 under coach Alan Inns, a three-time Olympian. He recalls: “I was probably one of the worst athletes he had ever taken on but he knew exactly the standards I had to achieve and he pushed me on to my first international vest at Munich Junior Regatta, followed by the illustrious Coupe de la Jeunesse.”
Collins moved into a training group with Tim Male, who competed in the lightweight four at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and they won the pairs head in 2007 when Collins was still only 17.
He says: “Having Tim there was just fantastic and he opened my eyes to what it took. In terms of your own personal performance, you can have good days and bad days but his application of what he was doing never changed.
“When you’re starting out in rowing you’re a real victim of the elements. My hands are quite tough now but then you get torn to shreds and it is really hard as you’re not conditioned and fit. Now I sort of look at people starting up and take my hat off to them because they stick with it.”
Following a club restructure, Collins left the Tideway Scullers in 2008, but not before he’d made the final of Thames Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta, losing in the final to a Leander eight containing future Olympic gold medallist Will Satch.
“He likes to remind me of that quite regularly,” says Collins.
However, as a result of his progress and success on the water, his studies at Strode’s College in Egham, where he was preparing to take his A-levels, began to suffer.
He explains: “At Henley in 2006 I did a Fawley quad with some up-and-coming Great Britain rowing lads. The four of us made a commitment to go to the Junior Worlds, the under-23s and then the Olympics and we started to try to execute that.
“College took a back seat to rowing and I ended up doing quite badly in my A-levels so university wasn’t that appealing to me.”
Collins began to train full-time, while also working part-time, and joined Reading University Boat Club's World Class Start programme, where he was coached by Don McLachlan.
He says: “It’s a talent identification scheme. It was just big people who had potential and they try to turn that into boat speed.
“I really liked Don as a coach and when Tideway Scullers abandoned its high performance group it seemed like a natural thing to go to Don, especially as at Tideway Scullers it’s bred into you that you can’t join Leander.
“Don was a technical guru and a tough coach and he taught me as much about making sacrifices and being professional as he did about how to row well.”
Collins made the under-23 world championships in Belarus in 2010 in the bow seat of a quadruple scull.
However, the university then decided it didn't want to run the programme any longer so Collins said he decided to do the “inevitable” and join Leander.
“I did take some grief from the guys down here,” he laughs. “I’ve always been a reasonably vocal person and I had been a bit anti-Leander. When they saw me in the changing rooms here on the first day I did take a bit of grief.”
He was under coaches Matt Beechey and Chris Collerton.
“I decided very quickly I’d made the right decision — there was a level of professionalism here that you don’t see anywhere else,” says Collins. “The training wasn’t a big step up for me as I had been training quite hard before that.
“It’s no secret that Leander do a very good job of funding themselves. The food here is subsidised, you get subsidised physiotherapy and you have access to telemetry on the boats and really good boats. Being able to go on two training camps a year — I’d never done that before.”
Collins admits he found it hard to compete at first.
“I’d always been a bit of a big fish in a small pond,” he says. “I’d always been one of the guys at the top of the group and if there was someone who was giving me competition I was able to push away from them.
“When I came to Leander I was in a group of 10 guys who were of a very similar standard to me. I was rarely able to win anything. That was not normal for me and I realised I had to do some serious work to get back to being a big fish in a big pond. It definitely pushed me on.”
He worked his way into a quadruple scull for the under-23 world championships in Amsterdam, this time in the stroke seat. He also experienced his first victory at Henley Royal Regatta in 2011, winning the Prince of Wales Challenge Cup. It was a huge achievement and laid the demons of 2008 to rest.
Collins says: “Being being able to finally turn that round was massive for me. Winning Henley as a British rower is such a big deal. World cup medals are great but for me a Henley medal is as important, if not more, as some of those.
“It meant a lot and to my dad as well. He would have loved to have raced at Henley but never did and to do that in front of him was great.”
The success continued as Collins and the crew won “pretty much everything” domestically, including the Metropolitan, Marlow and Wallingford regattas.
Later that year he moved to Henley and the following year he won at the royal regatta again, this time in the double sculls with Alan Sinclair.
This laid the foundation for Collins’ first senior regatta with Great Britain at the European championships in Varese, Italy, where he won the B final in the quadruple sculls, again in the stroke seat.
He says: “We beat some Olympic medallists in our final. It really opened my eyes to the standard of senior racing and what was coming.
“At the time, I had three of the hardest races I’d ever had. I could not believe the intensity of it. I couldn’t quite believe that was how it was meant to be.
“That European team was going to be the foundation of the post-London 2012 team so most of us were going to go to Caversham Lakes and start training as the squad when the returning Olympians came back.
“I have to say I hadn’t seen it coming. I had been trying for a long time to get into the team and I wasn’t sure I was good enough and had been thinking about calling it a day with rowing and joining the Marines.
“I had a few part-time jobs but nothing that was good financially. I was struggling financially.
“Then I got a letter saying ‘come and train at Caversham’. I would say I was excited and terrified in equal measure.
“When you’re not in the team and say ‘I want to go to the Olympics’ it’s very easy to say it but it’s a very daunting experience when it was in arm’s reach.
“When I turned up at Caversham there were nine or 10 scullers and you realise you’re a couple of seats away from the Olympics. Suddenly it becomes very real and that fight is on.”
There was disappointment for Collins in the 2013 season when he was dropped from the Great Britain team.
He competed in a world cup in Sydney but was injured during the final trials in April, tearing the cartilage in his shoulder as well as suffering tendonitis.
He was sent back to Leander briefly before being invited back to join a second eight.
“It was a bunch of spares,” he says. “They wanted us to be sparring partners with the other eight. That was my ticket back in and it really helped springboard my performance to have another crack at getting selected.”
He was in a composite crew with Molesey Boat Club that won the Ladies’ Challenge Plate at Henley in 2013.
But the GB second eight had mixed fortunes, narrowly missing out on a medal at the world championships at Dorney Lake and coming last in Lucerne.
In 2014 Collins was selected in the double scull with Walton even though they had done almost no rowing together.
He recalls: “We always said we should do a double scull but never managed it. It turned out to be a really good project. Every time we got in a boat together we moved better than the sum of our parts.”
Walton had been in the stroke seat for most of the Olympiad but the pair were swapped round by director of rowing and chief coach Mark Banks after a bad result at the first regatta of 2016 when they came sixth.
The change worked and they won a silver medal at the world cup in Poznan, their first, just weeks before the Rio Olympics.
“That was just the most amazing feeling ever,” says Collins. “The pre-training camps in Italy and Austria went so well and we were firing on all cylinders. We thought the stars were aligning and there was a medal there with our name on it.”
But those dreams quickly faded in Brazil.
“The conditions in Rio were awful and the water was abysmal,” says Collins. “There were very, very strong headwinds so we knew it was going to be a slow race. The problem with that course is there was a concrete wall behind the start. Waves were picking up on the course, hitting the wall and bouncing back on to the course so the start was very rough.
“We just couldn’t handle those conditions and got hammered when that final came. It was a very painful race. We fought as hard as we possibly could. One thing that gives me comfort is I always look back on that and know we couldn’t have done anymore, at least on the day.
“It makes you realise there’s some things you need to address if you’re going to take that last step to a medal.
“It’s honestly the most painful learning experience you could have. You don’t really get over that. Jonny and I saw coming fifth in Rio as a complete failure but my parents thought it was magical that I was in the final.
“For me the only thing I ever wanted to do was the Olympics and so there I was hanging out at the back of an Olympic final. You feel like such a victim of your dreams and you don’t want to be in that situation again. I realised there aren’t many days where I don’t think about what happened there — it’s a source of massive motivation. A part of it haunts me, but a part does fuel me.”
For six months after the Games Collins admits he struggled.
“I didn’t realise at the time, but I definitely was not in a good place,” he says. “I didn’t think my mental health was in a good place at all.
“It’s the fact you put so much into it and you don’t get what you feel you deserve. Deserving doesn’t even come into it — you just have to perform.”
He was supported by his parents and partner of four years, fellow Leander athlete Karen Bennett, who won a silver medal in the women’s eight at Rio.
Collins says he was proud of her achievement but that they were treated very differently after Rio as a medallist and non-medallist.
He explains: “I ended up getting treated better as her plus one than being an Olympic finalist myself.
“She got invited to a couple of film premieres and to Buckingham Palace. She got a pair of silver Oakley sunglasses to match her medal and I got told to go away when asked if there were any spare pairs. On the plane back the non-medallists went in second class. The medallists, and the gold medallists especially, were in business and first class. I went up to see Karen and make the most of sitting in business with her.
“I got the train home from the parade in London and was in my full Great Britain tracksuit and so many people came up to me and started talking to me. It was the first time I felt special and I was proud of what I’d done.
“There was a time when I had a few too many beers and emotions got the better of me and Karen had to pick me back up. That couldn’t have been easy and she did that fantastically.
“A group of us came back feeling quite down about the Games — myself, Pete Lambert, Jack Beaumont and Jonny. We were quite bitter but we were very, very motivated.”
The men formed a quadruple scull crew and spent the summer of 2017 on the podium, winning a bronze in the first world cup in Belgrade, gold at the second in Poznan and a silver at the third in Lucerne.
Collins missed the European championships through illness but the crew then won the Queen Mother Challenge Cup at Henley.
He says: “For me, especially with the depression and the mood swings I’d been having, that project was a real boost.”
There was drama in the world championship final in Sarasota-Bradenton in America that
Just minutes before the final was due to start Lambert suffered a back injury and was replaced by Thomas, who steered the boat to an impressive second place.
In 2018, Lambert had to have surgery and Collins, Thomas, Walton and Tom Barras were in the quad but they had an “inconsistent” season.
“We had the right four guys but we didn’t quite execute it in the right way,” says Collins.
They did at least win the Queen Mother Challenge Cup again that year.
In 2019, GB’s chief coach Jurgen Grobler said he wanted the top boat to be the double. Collins came fourth in the trials, which he was disappointed with.
He says: “Afterwards we had some testing and Graeme and I jumped in a double and did one of the runs in testing and absolutely stormed away from everyone.
“On the back of that we were selected. It just turned out we were quite a good combination. Graeme’s a ridiculously talented athlete, he’s just so strong but he's not the best at managing himself.
“I’m not the most talented athlete, by any stretch of the imagination, but I am very good at managing myself. We just really complemented each other quite well and got better and better.”
In Poznan they won a silver medal and were victorious in the Double Sculls Challenge Cup at Henley. They knocked two seconds off the course record set the previous day by Waiariki Rowing Club, of New Zealand, who they beat in the final.
Collins says: “That was a really tough race and although we led from start to finish, they had us under pressure the whole way. I felt on the back foot almost all the way down the course. We held on and they pushed us to a course record, which was fantastic.
“The following week at the world cup we were pretty cooked from such an intense race.”
The pair still won a bronze in Rotterdam, which Collins says was a “real victory” after the physical demands of Henley.
At the world championships in Linz-Ottensheim in September they came fourth and qualified for Japan.
Collins says: “It is a failure if you don’t qualify and avoiding failure is not an easy thing to do when you’re trying to avoid something as disastrous as not qualifying for the Olympics. Relief was the primary emotion.”
He has high hopes for Tokyo.
“I’m definitely feeling more relaxed than this time four years ago,” he says. “I’m really excited but I’ve come back to do better than last time and hopefully come home with something shiny.
“With that there’s a risk of lining myself up for a failure again but I think that’s a risk you have to take if you want to go and win a medal – you have to make that commitment.
“You kind of want to go home and say ‘there you go, a part of this is yours as well’. It’s such a big motivation. That’s what makes me so aware of what a medal would mean to the people who have supported me.
“I supported Karen as hard as I could. When she won a medal it does feel a little bit of that was because of what I did and that gives me a lot of comfort.
“I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been and, this time of year, that can only be a good thing.
“If that’s not good enough I’m only going to be beaten by people better than me and that is something I can take. I’ve just got to make sure there are fewer people that are better than me.”
10 February 2020
POLL: Have your say