It was the end of the 2009 competition canoe/kayak season when Gainesville native and sprint canoe/kayaker Stanton Collins had a decision to make. Collins had spent the last two years honing his skills as a member of the Lanier Canoe & Kayak Club (LCKC) team, and the coaches at the time — Dave and Debbie Robertson — were using the time of transition to pose a question to each member of the team: was kayaking just a hobby, or did they want to start taking it more seriously?
It was a choice Collins hadn’t really thought much of to that point. But once the question was asked, the answer was obvious.
“I guess that’s the first time I actually thought, ‘Well, I want to go to the Olympics,’” he said.
Since then, Collins has risen to an elite level of canoe and kayak, most recently competing in the 2018 International Canoe Federation Sprint World Championships, which wrapped up Aug. 26, in Portugal. He has competed in multiple world championship events, both at the junior and senior levels, and is now seeking Olympic qualification as the 2020 Summer Games get closer.
But success did not come easy or quickly for the Gainesville native.
When he first got into kayaking through the LCKC middle school program, Collins said he was no natural, although he would put it a bit more bluntly than that.
“I was not very talented when I started,” he said.
The most promising members of the program at LCKC were invited to join the team full-time once the abbreviated youth camp came to a close. Collins was not among them.
Not to be deterred, he asked the instructors if they had a spot on the team for him anyway.
They did, and Collins got to work. Over the next couple of years, Collins said he “made sure [he] was the one that was there the most.”
Within three years, he had qualified for the spring junior national team.
Within four, he was competing in the 2011 Junior World Championships. There was no junior world championship in 2012, so Collins took the time off to train.
But with little competition for Collins on Lake Lanier, his coach at the time, Claudiu Ciur, offered him a unique opportunity. Ciur, a Romanian native, invited a young Collins to come train with the national team in Romania.
“It was really good for me to go there and train with them, because they’re very fast, and I made a lot of friends there,” he said of the experience. “It was a really good experience.”
Collins returned to Romania every summer between 2012 and 2016 to work on his craft with some of the best in the world. Usually, there was a relatively large contingent of American paddlers for him to travel with, making the language and cultural barriers easier obstacles to overcome.
But that wasn’t always the case. In his second year overseas, Collins was the only American kayaker to make the trip. He was just 19 years old.
“It was just me with a bunch of Romanian guys, and that was a pretty big language barrier, because none of them spoke English,” Collins said. “So I had to kind of guess what they were doing on the water and try to just keep up with them.”
Collins’ work in Romania helped him to qualify for his first world championship outside of the junior level in 2015, where he competed with a partner in a two-man kayak. When his partner gave up paddling in 2016 after the duo failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics, Collins made the switch to competing solo.
This year he qualified for world championships in a single for the first time, and although he finished seventh in his heat, failing to qualify for the second round at worlds, Collins said he “got what [he] needed to out of this year.”
And while he said he has grown from the experience paddling solo, he is ready to get back into team kayaking, the variant of the sport he much prefers.
“It’s a different stroke, slightly different technique, and it’s a lot about timing and working with the people in the boat, rather than just fitness and technique in a single,” Collins said.
Looking ahead, Collins plans on training in a four-man boat, otherwise known as a K-4. He’ll compete in a K4 in the Pan American Canoe Sprint Championships this month, where his team will attempt to qualify for the 2019 World Championships.
“I think we’ve already kind of planned out training camps over the next year to try to prepare the team boats for world championships next year.”
And from there, Collins’ goal remains what it was all those years ago as a 15-year-old out on Lake Lanier.
“The real hope is that we can qualify in the Olympics,” he said.