Athlete Spotlight: AJ Collins
Meet AJ, a sophomore who rows starboard on Purdue Crew. He is studying to become a mechanical engineer, but really enjoys being on the team, since it allows him to dedicate himself to something bigger than himself. Being a student-athlete helps push him to be more effective and productive in everything that he does. AJ's favorite pre-practice snack is a plain bagel smothered in peanut butter, and after practice, you'll find him eating a banana and chocolate milk. During high intensity erging, he loves listening to "Till I Collapse" by Eminem, and during steady state rows, he listens to Big Bootie Mixes by Two Friends.
JL Racing: How long have you been rowing? How did you get into the sport, and why did you choose rowing over any other sport?
AJ Collins: I have been rowing for almost four years now and it initially started as a sport to keep me in shape for my main sport, hockey. I had played hockey since the age of five and I thought that rowing would be the right kind of leg work out for the ice. However, that changed when I first started to row on beautiful Lake Maxinkuckee. Probably a good mix of weather and coaching helped me fall in love with the sport as a whole and I haven’t looked back since. I think the biggest reason why I chose rowing over anything else is the kind of people that this sport attracts. There might be some differences between individuals on a crew, but the one common thread between us is our dedication and love for the sport. I know that if I went to almost any boathouse in the country, I could relate to and make friends with anyone.
JL: What is the most rewarding part of being a rower?
AJ: The most rewarding part of being a rower is the personal growth that you experience as a member of a crew. Being surrounded by people that are also striving towards the same goals is a catalyst for not only personal growth but also for developing meaningful relationships with the rowers around you. Those bonds that you form in the depths of winter training are the same ones that hold winning crews together in the last 1000m of the grand finals.
JL: What is your favorite boat class to row in?
AJ: My favorite boat to row casually is a 2-, I love the serenity of just rowing with one other person and having total control over the boat across the water. My favorite boat to race is either a 4+ or an 8+, it depends on the day. I love how fast a boat feels with seven other rowers swinging the boat down the racecourse, but there is also something to be said about the swing of a four when everyone is in sync, and you feel as fast as rowing in an eight.
JL: Is there a moment that you can pick out from your years in the sport where you felt the proudest? Or is there an accomplishment you would like to share?
AJ: If I had to single out one moment that I felt the proudest in, it would be from my novice year in college. At SIRAs (Southern Intercollegiate Rowing Assoc.), my novice 8+ was in the grand finals and my parents were at the finish line waiting to watch me race down the course. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, my parents hadn’t gotten to see a lot of the regattas that I had rowed at in high school. So it was definitely a special moment, regardless of the outcome of the race. When it was all said and done, my boat placed third and I was incredibly proud of the work that my boat had put in to medal at this regatta. But what made it such a special memory was seeing my parents’ faces beaming and cheering for us after we finished the race. That’s one race that I’ll remember very fondly.
JL: How do you balance school, rowing, and social life while in a time-intensive major?
AJ: Being a mechanical engineer and a rower has its unique aspects. I definitely feel the pressure to perform well in both aspects, which can and has caused me a lot of stress in the past. However, thanks to some careful planning and time management, it turns out there truly is time to do all of my schoolwork and have plenty of time for practice. Recently, I have found myself in one of our libraries a lot more to get all of my work done and finishing everything during the day. This has been critical to my time management and how I can stay true to all of my commitments.
JL: How do you stay motivated when things get tough?
AJ: My main form of motivation has been goals that I set for myself at the beginning of each season (fall, winter, and spring). They might seem like lofty and unattainable goals for myself when I start the season, but week by week I see my split go down or my technique get better or whatever I’m focusing on. So for large-scale motivation, I’d say personal and team goals are huge motivators. Whenever I’m in a tough piece and I really feel like getting off the erg or bike, I remind myself that it’ll be that much harder to do the piece next time that I try it. I saw it in high school, I would think that I’m about to fail and get off the erg. That next interval or whenever I tried the piece again was so much more daunting than the first time because I knew that the piece had beat me, not the other way around.
JL: How has your team helped you succeed both academically and athletically?
AJ: My team has helped me a lot in both aspects of the question. Academically, it has been a huge benefit for me to have rowers my age, younger, and older than me in the same major or field because I can gain a lot of insight and wisdom from them. Whether it’s trying to take a class with a certain professor or study tables with my teammates at the Union, my teammates have been a large part of my academic success. Athletically, I have always been inclined towards team sports because I know that I’m not the kind of person or athlete to cut it on my own. I need the sound of the erg fans all around me, I need the people shouting in my ear to make it through the last 200m of a 2k, I need the camaraderie amongst the team to keep going back to practice every day. Just having my teammates around me is great, but the fact that they are also some of the hardest-working and most fun people around is a huge blessing.
JL: What is your favorite part about being a student athlete?
AJ: My favorite part about being a student athlete is that I feel more productive and more proud of myself than I would be if I wasn’t a part of a sport. Sports and competition have been such a formative part of my life growing up that I would have had a hard time giving it up in college while I still had the chance to compete on a team. And being a student athlete, you give up time in your day where you could be studying or hanging out with friends or getting more sleep, and instead you dedicate yourself to something bigger than yourself. I have found myself to be more effective and productive when put under a time crunch, which forces me to really concentrate 110% of my efforts into what I’m currently doing in any single moment.
JL: What tips or advice would you give to someone about becoming a student athlete?
AJ: I think the biggest tip that I would have for anyone looking to pursuing their academic and athletic careers at a higher level is to create a calendar and organization system that works the best for their brain. For me personally, that is Google Calendar and Purdue’s online academic system. If something is not on my calendar with appropriate reminders, it won’t get done and I won’t be able to remember what I was doing on a certain day without it. As for my academic career, Purdue has an online system that they use to coordinate all of their classes onto one main website that branches out. And from there, I will follow whatever course my professors want to take with homework or quizzes or any kind of assignments outside of class to keep myself on top of my work. As of recently, I have become a bit of a “library rat” and really found a lot of value of spending every free moment that I have between when classes and practice starts in the library. For me personally, I need a quiet environment to let my brain work and put my whole energy into whatever assignment or studying that I need to do that day.
JL: Do you have any rituals or superstitions you do before a regatta? If not, what is something you do to set yourself up for success on race day?
AJ: I don’t know if I would call it a ritual, but this fall I started to wear regatta pants (painter's pants that I drew and painted myself) wherever we were racing. I was told about them by a couple of my teammates, Ian Jenkins and Rykken Johnson, and convinced to design my own and wear them around the racecourse between races. They worked well for the one regatta I had them at this fall, so I hope that continues into the spring season. Another superstition I have is that I always want to race like I practice rowing. During the week before a race, I’ll always wear the same visor and sunglasses combination to “get used to” wearing them while we row and train for the regatta. As for race day, I am a huge fan of peanut butter on almost anything in the food tent. Peanut butter and bagels, peanut butter and bananas, peanut butter and crackers, basically peanut butter with any kind of simple carbs and I’ll eat it up. I also drink a ton of water to help flush my body a few hours before my boat launches, I have had a few races in my career where my mouth is dry at the 1000m mark and it’s never fun to row with cotton mouth.
JL: What are your rowing goals for the upcoming season/year?
AJ: My personal rowing goals for this upcoming spring season are to get as close to a 6:30 2k time as I possibly can; medal at the San Diego Crew Classic, SIRAs, MACRAs, and ACRAs; and be a guaranteed member of our second varsity 8+ for the duration of the season. As for team goals, we as a men’s varsity team are aiming to medal in all our respective grand finals for all our regattas this season. We are also aiming to secure the ACRA team and men’s team points trophy this year.
JL: How does JL fit into your rowing life? Why JL as opposed to another brand?
AJ: JL fits into my rowing life by supplying most of my rowing wardrobe across the board. Since my first season in high school, JL has been the brand that I have gone to for anything and everything rowing related. I bought my first trou and unisuit from them and I have only expanded my wardrobe from there. When choosing JL, it was as simple as looking around most any regatta I was at and recognizing the logo compared to any other one on the market. I kept seeing their logo on unisuits, jackets, t-shirts, and more as I kept looking. And after I went online to shop for myself, I could see why. The materials that JL uses alongside the prices that I could actually afford in high school and college were everything that I needed to convince myself.