Claire Collins double- and triple-checked the list. The 24-year-old had an inkling she was on it, but this was something that she needed to see to truly believe. Sure enough, the list confirmed the news: The McLean, Virginia, native was headed to Tokyo as part of the U.S. rowing team.
Collins, was a standout at Princeton — a three-time All-American who was nominated for the NCAA’s woman of the year in 2019. But her path to securing a spot in the women’s four event — meaning there were only four spots available — was hardly easy. She not only had to shine in selection camp, but had to overcome a broken rib and a stretch in which her practice speed decreased by a full eight seconds.
So when Collins saw that she had officially made the roster, there was a mix of relief and excitement.
“It’s more like pinching yourself out of a dream,” Collins said. “I was there. I knew I won. I knew I was in it. But it was just kind of crazy to see my name.”
That excitement turns into reality as the first heat for the women’s four event begins Friday.
The United States is tied for the most gold medals in the sport all-time, with 33, and tends to do very well in rowing. But the women’s four event has been absent from the games for nearly 30 years. In addition to actually rowing the boat, Collins is tasked with yelling out instructions for teammates.
Collins’ love for the sport began, oddly enough, on dry land when she started working out as a freshman at Deerfield Academy, a private school in Massachusetts on an erg machine — a pulling device that replicates the rowing motion. She became infatuated with the sound and the feel of the machine. “You feel so powerful,” Collins said.
She had played in multiple sports — swimming, soccer, volleyball — growing up, but there was something about rowing that just clicked. After three sessions with the erg, she signed up for the CRASH-B Sprints — a nationwide indoor rowing competition that takes place in Boston where participants simulate a 2,000-meter race, the length of the actual race on the water.
Collins laughs about it now. She admits she didn’t know what she was in for.
“It’s like the hardest thing we do,” Collins said, referencing the 2,000-meter distance. “It’s a really grueling test. It’s basically going all out for seven minutes.”
That experience, though, helped convince her to stick with the sport. She remembers the atmosphere of the crowded arena at Boston University — the cheers, the support. It didn’t matter that she had yet to go on an actual rowboat. Collins said she left the competition excited to dive in further.
Collins’ rise eventually led to a standout career at Princeton. Princeton coach Lori Dauphiny calls Collins a natural leader, one who was resilient throughout college and lifted others. Dauphiny even saw that resilience during Collins’ senior year — when the rower unexpectedly hit a wall and her personal times in training decreased. Up until that point, Collins had improved all three years of college, but suddenly she was less effective than normal. They struggled to pinpoint an exact reason why.
“It would have been very easy to give up, to say, ‘Maybe I’ve hit my prime,’” Dauphiny said, “But she didn’t let it get her down. She changed the way she approached things. We worked together and she changed some of her training. … It was more a challenge that she had to get through than more an obstacle that would stop her.”
Collins said she was frustrated. She prided herself on her strength and speed. But she learned a lesson, she said. There were still ways to be impactful, to be there for her team. Collins was named a co-captain her senior year, a role she embraced.
And despite the frustration with her training, rowing — at its core — is still a water sport. And when it came time to actually compete in the water, Collins performed at an elite level. She helped Princeton win the Ivy League Championship in 2019.
When Princeton won that event, Dauphiny recalled Collins sobbing to the point that her coach thought she was hurt. She frantically rushed over to check, only to discover tears of joy.
“She knew that everyone on the team had medaled, if not won their event,” Dauphiny said. “It was just so moving — That’s the kind of person Claire is.”
Following graduation in 2019, Collins continued rowing. She was invited to train at the U.S. team’s rowing center, her sights set on Tokyo. In the fall, however, she broke her rib — an injury that sidelined her completely for two months and another month to get back into rowing shape.
Luckily for Collins, the U.S. team’s selection camp wasn’t until June — giving her time to heal. She had won her seat races, an event in which U.S. officials switch out participants to see which combination is fastest.
“It’s been a very colorful, textured journey to get to this point,” Collins said. “It’s crazy that it’s here.”