Within any profession there are dazzling sensations, graceful participants who ascend to the top echelon of their craft to assume the old guard’s position. There are also those who rely largely on the process. Those who face doubt and uncertainty head on nearly everyday and seek ways to overcome it.
“I wasn’t a child prodigy so for me it was a matter of putting in the time and being patient,” men’s professional International Racquetball Tour (IRT) player Robert Collins said. “Understanding the off-court stuff was big for me. Keeping a strict routine. It was never about just one practice but the motto was keep showing up. No matter what happened I knew I needed to keep showing up. I played a full year on Tour before I qualified for a main draw.”
Racquetball’s Ultimate Journeyman.
Collins’ story is the story of anyone who has clung onto a goal despite inconveniences and unlikely odds. Collins is a racquetball parable about the power of self-belief, patience, and above all, hard work. Robert “Robbie” Collins was born in Wahiawa, Hawaii and although he did not achieve any major racquetball success in his youth, now at age 26, sits #14 in the Tour rankings. (The highest rank he has achieved was the #9 spot).
“I was introduced to this game at an early age.” Collins recalled. “All the moms and dads in my neighborhood would get together and play at the (military) base weekly and they would take turns sitting out and watching the kids. This was when I was about nine years old.”
It was a time and a place where the communities and the military base at Pearl Harbor had many shared aspects of island life. “I remember it being much harder to play racquetball after 9/11 because no civilians were allowed on the base right after that,” he said. “That (Pearl Harbor) is where I learned to play and that is where the best players were.” The interactions he had with servicemen affected the young Collins, who saw their dedication, loyalty, and work ethic not as extraordinary but expected. All qualities Collins would later apply to help carry him onto the IRT.
Top Tier Golfer Turns to Racquetball
Despite his best attempts to travel for racquetball as a junior player, Collins struggled to find his footing. “I was playing racquetball competitively from an early age,” he said. “I think my first tournament was at 11. However, because there was no USA Racquetball sanctioned events in my area I had to travel to the mainland for tournaments. This meant well over $1,000 to play in one event. And when I did get to travel I was always one of the last seeds.”
Collins early career was characterized by logistical impossibilities and difficult competition that could have quickly put a lesser-driven individual out of the game. Despite all this, the belief in his game continued to grow. All the while he also played golf.
He attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu and graduated with dual degrees in psychology and ethnic studies. He shouldered this heavy academic course load while coaching varsity golf at a local high school. “I know golf will always be a passion of mine but when I entered into college and I was unable to play (NCAA Division I) ‘D1’, I knew it was not something I wanted to continue to pursue career wise,” Collins said after playing most of his life. “I always want to be able to devout myself 100-percent and when I could no longer do that with golf I knew it was time to walk away.”
His first exposure to the Stockton, Calif. racquetball scene was in his sophomore year of college at U.S. National Singles. “I remember playing a guy from that area named Jesse Serna and afterwards he introduced me to a bunch of the guys from there.” This included top-ranked professionals, Jose and Markie Rojas, along with Jose Diaz.
Collins took quickly to the racquetball crew, not only admiring them as players but also fitting in as a friend. He knew that whatever these guys were doing, he wanted to be doing it too. During his senior year of college in 2012, he flew out, alone, to Stockton for one of the group’s “Pro Camps.”
“I hit it off with everybody,” he said. “By the end of the camp I realized I need to be here if I wanted to play pro. Everyone was working hard and grinding together. It was super inspiring; it showed me the next level. Not just one drill or workout was the deciding factor but the culture of professionalism. I felt that early on.” Collins flew back to Hawaii, finished his degree and within a week of graduation moved permanently to live and train in Stockton. He had made a resolution to turn pro.
Graduates College, Moves to Stockton, and Turns Pro
Collins’ scholastic achievements have left the door open to him for graduate school and other career opportunities. “I know I have my degrees to fall back on, but right now I am looking just at my present. I need to be here right now.” Collins tasked himself with the need for a quick, steep improvement in a professional game where most of the top 20 players had been great their entire lives. He would once again enter into every draw last, or next to it. “I knew I had to be all in, perhaps more than ever before on anything I have ever done,” Collins said.
His first year on Tour was difficult, having to adjust to not only the level of play but also to the demands of traveling and planning his life around the sport. “How I was doing in practice wasn’t translating on the court and it was super frustrating, but with the support of my family and trust in the process…it got me to where I am today. I kept telling myself, if you want to do it you have to be all in. I am an all-in type of guy. I can’t do anything halfway.”
After a year of not qualifying no one would have judged Collins for retiring and pursuing other means. However in his case, the internal voice remained strong and confident. Slowly, over the next two years, Collins would creep into the main draw and begin to take down players that pundits would have in the past never given him a chance to beat.
In 2012, Collins was a rookie who many assumed might not stick around long. Five years later he is considered a very solid pro. “Now, my two biggest goals are to be a top-eight player in the world and to win. I don’t just want to have a good showing, I want to win. I think everyone should have that mentality. Four years ago I wasn’t even qualifying, now I am as close as #9. Winning can seem far away at times, but I don’t stay in that mentality for long. Others may see it as far away but I do not.” Collins, who still has many more years left in his prime, is only emboldened by his recent successes and plans to continue his push to racquetball’s summit.
Former Varsity Golf Coach Runs Junior Racquetball Programs
Besides being a full-time professional, Collins also has an active role in the Fitness Forever program. Spawned from the Reaching Your Dream Foundation non-profit, the program seeks to help young players continue in the sport. Fitness Forever stresses the importance of engaging with inner city youth who otherwise would never be exposed to a gym, let alone the sport.
“In Stockton there were a few people who were integral to the batch of pros that came out of here,” Collins noticed. “I saw what a few dedicated individuals could do, so that is why it was a no-brainer for me to help out. I wanted to give back.”
With previous coaching experience, Collins naturally took to running junior practices. He knew how to deal with players and interact with parents. His weekly classes now attract over 35 kids per session.
“Racquetball gave me discipline and I will never forget the people who helped me over the years. I want others to get that same benefit,” he said. “I see the kids who continually come back to the classes and get involved in the sport are more likely to do well in school and stay out of trouble.”
For Collins, he is beginning to see real improvement in not only his own game but also improvement in youth participation in his area. “We offer more than a game, we offer a community.”
Collins’ quiet conduct at tournaments and during training is more a testament to his steadfast dedication and seriousness to improvement. He is in fact one of the most well articulated athletes on Tour and one of the kindest.
This season, he held a free four-hour clinic at the St. Louis Pro Racquetball Winter Rollout. “There were so many juniors at the tournament, it was incredible,” Collins said. “How could I turn down some of them? How could I really turn down anyone who wants to learn racquetball?” He held court until everyone had a chance to play.
Collins continues to enjoy golf and loves traveling with the IRT because of all the food he can try. A foodie at heart, he finds great joy and rewards himself with post match meals. “Oh man, where do I even begin? Mexican food… I mean tacos, burritos, chips, whatever… That is the most appetizing fuel I can imagine. Is there anything better? And then maybe some ice cream.”
In his youth, Collins would be out with his father on the greens enjoying the Hawaiian summers. His father clearly cherished these moments, golfing with his son and visibly gleeful. Young Robbie however was all business, keeping his competitive demeanor on at all times.
“My dad would make fun of me and say, “Come on, have some fun!” and smile, but I really was having fun, probably more fun than anyone,” Collins said. “I like to compete. I like to get better. I don’t know how to put it. I just love the grind.”
By Tim Prigo
IRT Writer, Tim Prigo, is a lifelong racquetball enthusiast who competed in his first tournament at ten years old in Claremont, California, where he grew up. Since then, Tim has played in many IRT events, ranking among the top 40 at his best. He earned a B.A. in English Literature and Philosophy from Franklin Pierce University in 2009, where he spent many years abroad, traveling, and studying. In addition to contributing stories and match recaps for the IRT, Tim is an aspiring poet and sports journalist. He also is the club pro at Lloyd Athletic in Portland, Oregon, where he now resides.