It wasn't until Christopher Collins was in his sixties that he became a two-fisted oarsman. "I wasn't rowing then," he recalled. "I was eating." He was up around 220 lbs., roughly 50 more than he should have been carrying. "My wife suggested that I join a health club," he said. "Otherwise I'd be dead now."
Collins — Kit to his friends and competitors — happened upon a rowing machine there and discovered that he had an aptitude for it. Once Collins got himself afloat he found that he could move a boat faster than most men his age. Thus did a Virginia native and father of seven become a competitive rookie when his peers were veterans and began winning medals.
"Kit is a great competitor," said 79-year-old Carlo Zezza, who with the 83-year-old Collins and nearly 50 fellow septuagenarians and octogenarians will be competing Saturday morning in what friendly rival Richard Kendall calls the '70-to-oblivion category' of the Head of the Charles Regatta. "I am personally grateful to him for sustaining the level of competition at our advanced age. There aren't so many of us."
The senior and grand veterans is a small but serious fraternity that turns up at old boys' events along the Eastern seaboard. Among them Collins, Kendall, and Zezza have won a combined two dozen HOCR titles since 1998. "Any race in the last 20 years that one of the three of us was in, one of us won," reckoned Collins, a former world age-group champion who has claimed four veteran and two grand veteran singles crowns at the Head.
Last year, when Zezza won his third straight senior veteran II title, Collins beat Kendall by more than 23 seconds in the grand veteran race. "He cleaned my clock," acknowledged the 85-year-old Kendall, whose 12 victories in the over-70 events have earned him the respectful title of "Old Man River."
Collins has been coming to the Charles since 1994, when he was intrigued by the chatter about a regatta that seemed to be on every rower's bucket list. "Everybody was talking about it so much I thought I'd give it a try," he said.
After finishing 10th in his veteran debut, Collins leapfrogged from fifth to third to first with a powerful, high-RPM style. "Kit's short stroke is truly original, maybe because he never learned to row as a kid," said Zezza. "There's none other like it, and it works for him."
Unlike Kendall, who rowed for Penn's lightweight champions at Henley, and Zezza, who stroked the Harvard heavyweight varsity, it took Collins decades to find his way to a boathouse. He was an intramural athlete at Washington and Lee, not far from where he grew up on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley in a circa-1800 house with no plumbing. "I had the complete farm experience," he said. "I milked cows by hand, picked corn by hand . . . "
Collins also learned Russian on the farm after a displaced family from the Motherland turned up on the premises after World War II in the wake of a lengthy boat trip. After serving on submarines in the Navy he went on to be a commercial tour guide in the USSR, to teach Russian literature at Syracuse and Virginia and to write books on Russian authors.
When that academic field became crowded Collins switched to home state real estate and still works as a broker for Virginia Estates, handling everything from farms to shopping centers. "I'm not going to retire unless they carry me out of here," he said.
There's no sign of Collins easing off on the oars, either. Last year he set a grand veteran course record (22:35.14) to go along with his 2001 veteran mark (19:24.329) that still stands. "He is exceptionally strong with good endurance," said Kendall. "Unless I am on my 'A' game he is going to get me."
Collins, who'll go for seven-mile practice rows on the Rivanna River, also steers the trailer for Western Albemarle High School's crew. "I'm the official designated driver," he said. That's an added benefit of being a grand veteran, on and off the water. You don't need a learner's permit.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.