When men’s water polo captain Collin Smith was just 13 years old, he had already figured out what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
And it wasn’t just water polo.
In the winter of his eighth-grade year, Smith was selected to attend a holiday training camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Complex in Colorado Springs, Colo. For several days, the young native of San Diego joined other junior athletes from all over the country to learn under some of the nation’s top water polo coaches.
But during that week, Smith wasn’t solely focused on developing his water polo game. Another aspect of the winter camp caught his attention while he was in the pool training.
Despite the many U.S. National Team coaches and past Olympians Smith had the chance to learn from, the young teenager was more so drawn to the people who were working with the athletes and Olympians on the sidelines — people who Smith would later find out were called “biomechanists.” Biomechanists who work specifically in the field of sports analyze athletic movement and performance through the laws of mechanics.
His newfound curiosity sparked a possible career interest at the age of 13 — and since then, he has been set on working in the field of applied biomechanics, a branch of kinesiology focused on the study of body movement, to stay in touch with his love of athletics.
“It just kind of intrigued me,” Smith said. “When I was on that trip, I got to see firsthand how these people were able to work with athletes and stay around the sports world for so long — and that’s what I decided I always wanted to pursue.”
Juggling his passion for water polo and holding down an academically rigorous schedule was no easy task for Smith.
From the get-go, Smith had to rapidly adjust to handling a jam-packed schedule. As a talented freshman recruit, Smith made the men’s water polo travel team straightaway — a feat normally attained by more experienced veteran players. And as a regular sub off the bench, the freshman standout played in all 28 matches that season. Last year, the 6-foot-1 senior attacker led the team in scoring with a high of 61 goals and 31 assists — all the while keeping on track to graduate with a degree in integrative biology.
For Smith, competing in the pool against some of the top squads in the nation is in many ways similar to competing in the classroom. He likens exams to competitive tournaments, grades to trophies — and in developing a similar mentality to handle both major aspects of his life, he is able to succeed in a pool against six other opponents as well as in a lecture hall among a sea of 500 Berkeley students.
“Competing in the pool, you learn on a daily basis how you work best to build off each day,” Smith said. “Especially thinking about taking your undergraduate science classes where everyone’s just competing to get the best grade they can — you just have to focus on yourself, figure out what strategy fits you.”
According to Smith, if there’s one thing he’s learned throughout his past four years at Cal, it’s how to effectively manage his time so that he spends his day doing the things he values. His strategy? Find the sparse half-hour time slots he has in between his classes, weight training, video or pool practice and not squander them.
“Finding that time is hard, but you find these times, because they’re there,” Smith said. “And if something’s important to me, I’ll make time.”
In order to step back from his hectic schedule, Smith has found a home in the Christian community to give himself a breather. About 8 p.m. every Wednesday night, Smith joins about 30 members of the Christian organization Athletes in Action for worship and fellowship at First Presbyterian. For Smith, who comes from a strongly faith-based family, his Wednesday nights provide a sort of solace for him to slow down in the midst of weeks replete with nonstop activity.
“Those Wednesday nights — even though it’s not much — it keeps you there, it keeps you grounded,” Smith said. “It’s nice to have that time to spend with other athletes who share things beyond just being here at the same place.”
Smith knows exactly what he wants to strive for this year and the years following. After he graduates in May, hopefully with a national title under his belt, he will try for a spot on the U.S. national team — perhaps to play in the 2016 Summer Olympics. Whether he establishes a position for himself on the national team, Smith plans to obtain a master’s degree in biomechanics or kinesiology to continue working in the world of athletic sports for as long as he can.
But whatever happens for the ambitious senior in the near future, Smith believes that he has made all the right choices and sacrifices in his four years at Cal — and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When I came in, I had a goal to graduate in four years while competing for four years collegiately, and now that I’m looking back, I realize that all the sacrifices I made were all worth it,” Smith said. “Now that I’m here towards the end, having all the pieces come together — the fact that I’ve been able to do everything that I love doing and still feel like I’ve been part of enough, feel like I haven’t missed out — that’s the true reward.
“No matter what happens with our season, I’m absolutely happy with what I’ve been able to accomplish and what I’ve been able to be a part of here.”
Janice Chua covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected].