“Thanks, but no thanks.”
That’s how Mario Wilson, an assistant track and field coach at the University of Virginia, typically would have responded to an email such as the one he received in the spring of 2014 from Cameron Collins, then a freshman at Hampden-Sydney College.
But Wilson was intrigued, as was Bryan Fetzer, Virginia’s director of track & field/cross country by Collins’ message. Not every day did they come across a Division III basketball player who wanted to become a Division I decathlete.
“It’s not normal,” Fetzer said, laughing.
Before spending a postgraduate year as a boarding student at Kent School in Connecticut, Collins had won a state championship in the 800-meter run as a senior at Darlington School in Rome, Georgia. He also starred in basketball and baseball in high school, and he stands 6-foot-5, with good jumping ability.
“He’s an athlete,” Fetzer said.
Collins, who’s from Calhoun, Georgia, had hoped to land a Division I basketball scholarship after attending Kent School. But he had a Plan B, too.
“I thought, ‘OK, if I don’t get that Division I [basketball] scholarship, then I’m moving to track,’” Collins recalled recently.
At Darlington School, he had competed in the 800 and the 4x400 relay, but no field events. He had a cousin who was a decathlete, however, and Collins would attend Hunter Delashmit’s meets during the summer, picturing himself competing in those events.
“I just kept thinking that in another lifetime, I would do this,” Collins said.
The Division I basketball scholarship offers for which Collins had hoped never materialized. Even so, he decided to continue his hoops career at Hampden-Sydney, which as a Division III school does not have athletic scholarships.
He enjoyed the experience and made many friends at the all-male college. Still, he wanted something more. “I thought that I had the ability to do the events in the decathlon,” Collins said. “I knew it would take a couple years to learn it, but I just felt like the sky would be the limit there.”
After the 2013-14 basketball season ended at Hampden-Sydney, he emailed Fetzer and Wilson at UVA. Wilson began corresponding with Collins, who admitted that he was about 30 pounds lighter when he ran the 800 in high school.
“So I said, ‘Man, maybe he can’t do that anymore,’” Wilson recalled. “But for me the endurance side of it is usually something that sticks. Either you can run distance or you can’t. You’ve got to have the lungs, and you’ve just got to be tough.
“Cam’s got ’em both, so I knew that no matter what I did training-wise, I wouldn’t have to put a lot of emphasis on the one aerobic event” in the decathlon: the 1,500-meter run.
The decathlon, contested outdoors, comprises 10 events: the 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400-meter run on the first day, and the 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500-meter run on the second day.
The heptathlon is contested indoors. It consists of seven events: the 60-meter dash, long jump, shot put and high jump on the first day, and the 60-meter hurdles, pole vault and 1,000-meter run on the second day.
“You have to have endurance, speed, strength, and you have to be technically sound [to excel in the decathlon and heptathlon],” Fetzer said.
After a meet at North Carolina State University in the spring of 2014, Wilson was driving back to Charlottesville when he saw a sign for Hampden-Sydney. So he stopped at a gas station and pulled out his cell phone. At that point, he and Collins had never met in person.
“I called him up and said, ‘Hey, Cam, what are you doing right now?’” Wilson recalled.
Collins was studying, but he was happy to meet with Wilson. To his delight, Wilson saw that Collins was indeed a legitimate 6-5, with an athlete’s physique. Moreover, Collins’ character impressed Wilson. After the Cavaliers’ coaches conferred back in Charlottesville, they invited Collins to join the team as a walk-on.
“With Cam, it was a good roll of the dice,” Fetzer said.
Wilson said: “Basically we gave him a shot, and it’s working out. It’s really working out. He’s really enjoying UVA, and [as an athlete] he has these raw materials that are kind of undeniable.”
Collins, a third-year economics major, is a redshirt sophomore in terms of athletic ability. He’s one of four decathletes on the men’s roster, along with second-year student Jack Lint, third-year Anthony Dunavant and fourth-year Christian Lavorgna.
“Good group,” Wilson said. “They work really well together, and they’ve all got different events that they can draw experience from. It’s fun to work with them.”
Lint set a school record in the heptathlon last month with 5,358 points, and he ranks fourth all-time at UVA in the decathlon with 7,179 points.
Dunavant and Lint were decathletes before they arrived at UVA, “so they were pretty accomplished in terms of having all the events down,” Wilson said.
Collins, meanwhile, has “had to learn them from scratch,” Fetzer said. Not surprisingly, he’s struggled at times.
“It’s been a huge learning curve,” Wilson said.
Last January, four days before he was scheduled to compete in his first heptathlon, Collins was working on the pole vault in practice.
“He just had one moment of hesitation, and that’s all it takes sometimes,” Wilson said. “We weren’t even going fast. He was taking literally four steps – one, two, three, four – and he tripped. And I tripped, trying to catch him. He wasn’t more than six inches off the ground, but that pole, once it gets loaded, it has all this energy in it, and if you let go of that pole, which he did, it just unbent, right back in his face.”
The blow broke Collins’ nose, which shifted His nasall cartilage to underneath his left eye.
“He looked rough,” Wilson said. “It was not pretty. But then I learned something about him.”
The medical staff told Collins he would need surgery to repair his nose. “They weren’t going to be able to just set it,” Wilson said. “Then his next question was: ‘Can I still compete this weekend?’”
The doctors gave him permission to do so, and with two black eyes and a heavily taped nose, Collins completed his first heptathlon, placing eighth at the Rod McCravy Memorial Meet in Kentucky. His score of 4,431 points was the fifth-best in program history and third-best by a freshman.
“He gutted it out and found a way,” Wilson said.
At last year’s ACC indoor meet, Collins placed 12th in the heptathlon. At the ACC outdoor meet, he finished ninth in the decathlon.
“I had higher expectations,” Collins said, “but then again, I didn’t realize how long it was going to take to master each event.”
His fellow decathletes have encouraged and helped him at every turn, Collins said, but he still lags behind them in several events, particularly the pole vault and hurdles.
“That’s simply because there’s just a lot of time you have to put in to those events, a lot of repetition,” Collins said, “and I’m trying my best to put all the time in I can to make up for what I didn’t do in high school.
“I knew coming in that I would be behind in a lot of the technical events like hurdles and pole vault. I also knew I had a lot of advantages in those events because of my height and speed and jumping ability.”
There’s a fearlessness about Collins, Fetzer said, that is serving him well at UVA. Failure is part of the learning process for a budding decathlete.
“I knew coming in there were going to be some embarrassing moments,” Collins said. “I’m never going to forget that first hurdles practice, because I was jumping as high as I could over the hurdle and landing, and then crawling to the next one and jumping. And other people were just going through it like the hurdle wasn’t even there. I guess it just makes it sweeter when you realize how far you’ve come.”
Collins knows he still has “a long way to go.” But the signs of progress are unmistakable, and the coaching staff’s decision to take Collins as a transfer looks better all the time.
“Cam’s going to be pretty good by the time it’s all said and done,” Fetzer said.