PROVIDENCE — On a wet and chilly Saturday in September 1993, Matthew Collins gripped his oar, waiting with his teammates to race in the lightweight men’s final at the World Rowing Championships in Czechoslovakia.
A record 960 rowers from 46 countries had competed to get to the finals. Collins, then a 26-year-old medical student at Howard University, and his teammates were in the sixth racing lane — the last one, thanks to their performance in the semi-finals. His team had been together only since July. The crowd favorite, the British team that won the championship in 1991 and 1992, was in the third lane.
“The United States [competitors are] certainly outsiders in this race. Not a lot known about them,” the commentators can be heard saying in a video of the race.
But after the first 1,000 meters, Collins and his teammates, Thomas Beetham, Chris Kerber and Jonathan Moss, were well ahead of the pack.
“We didn’t know how good we were. And that was the best thing for us,” Collins, who lives in Boston, said in a recent interview. “We trained really hard and never gave up on improving. Our goal was just to make it through the progression. Get ourselves into the final. Everyone else thought we had it. But we had no idea.”
He added, “I always think back to what my coach at UMass Amherst used to tell me: ‘When you cross the finish line, look up and look like you can do it again.’ ”
The American team went on to win the gold medal in a stunner, beating the Swiss by 72 milliseconds.
Now he’s executive vice president and chief medical officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island, and rowing has always remained a key element in Collins’s his life. So much so that he’s heading to the Tokyo Olympics this month as head doctor for the US Rowing Team.
“I never served in the military, and while I’m not comparing the two, it feels so great to do something on behalf of a great nation. You wear the flag on your uniform, and it’s the greatest honor when they are playing the National Anthem because you and your team won,” Collins, 54, said after a recent row along the Charles River, not far from where he lives.
Both he and his wife, Christine Smith-Collins, who earned the Bronze medal in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, row several times a week. “You think of everyone you represent in that moment. You think of every American watching at home thinking, ‘That’s one of us.’ ”
Collins left New England Saturday to join the American team in Hawaii before they head to Japan. Though he’s worked with the team’s medical staff since 2006, these games will be vastly different, he said, because of COVID-19 restrictions by the International Olympic Committee and Japanese organizers. Collins will be in charge of regular check-ins with athletes, as well as scheduling and administering all coronavirus tests for the team.
The games were scheduled to take place last year, but the pandemic forced them to be postponed.
“At first, we were trying to ingest all of the information that we could about COVID-19 last year. Was it safe to train in team boats? Could they be in a weight room together? What if an athlete contracts COVID-19? Then we had to see if they had cardiac or lung impairments, which would be really scary for an athlete of such a caliber,” Collins said.
Olympic athletes on the team did get infected. He said about 10 out of the more than 50 trainees contracted the coronavirus in the last 16 months, but none had severe impairments that would warrant any major limitations. About 30 athletes made the cut to compete in Tokyo.
When the team arrives in Japan, frequent testing and screenings will be required, as will face masks. He said that even though everyone on the US team is fully vaccinated, he’s feeling the stress: “Heaven forbid” someone tests positive.
“I’ve trained, and put in a lot. And I know what type of sacrifice it takes to get to the level they’ve reached,” Collins said of the athletes.
These Olympics, which open in two weeks, will also ban in-person fans following a state of emergency declared in Japan Thursday. But Collins remains hopeful this year will unite spectators and athletes around the world.
“Every time you arrive [for the opening ceremony], everyone is in game mode,” Collins said. “They have their game face on. They are worried, there’s been a lot of anticipation, and they’ve all trained hard for this moment. But each year, as the events go on, those guards start to come down.”
He added, “But these Olympics will mean even more after the loss the world has seen. I do think these games have the potential to help heal us all.”