By Kim Constantinesco
Freestyle skiers and snowboarders have keen awareness of their environment. They have to in order to get down the mountain in one piece. They inspect terrain, monitor snow conditions, scrutinize weather patterns, and calculate how their high-flying, speed-gaining abilities factor into the space around them.
What many young mountain athletes don’t often consider is their self-composed core values; the things that really make their life meaningful beyond the slopes.
That’s where 77-year-old Peter Hawks comes into play.
Peter lost his son, Ryan, five years ago in a tragic skiing accident during a Freeskiing World Tour competition in Kirkwood, Calif.
Two months after his death, Peter discovered Ryan’s “Principles for Living” on his computer.
“It was a private note from Ryan to Ryan defining his core values for living,” Peter said. “We found values like, ‘Don’t be afraid to ask for help, Be the best brother, son, and uncle I can be,’ and ‘Never stop exploring in life.'”
Then 72 years old and retired, Peter was inspired to lead the charge and start the Flyin Ryan Hawks Foundation out of his home in Burlington, Vermont. Their mission is to encourage others to craft their own set of core principles and act on them as they engage in life.
That’s precisely why Peter planted himself at the registration table of the Freeskiing World Tour’s March event in Big Sky, Montana on March 23, 2016. With him, he had 3 x 5 index cards. His intention was to inspire athletes, who regularly launch themselves off cliffs, to take the ultimate leap into self awareness by writing down what makes life worth living.
As it applies to big mountain skiers and snowboarders, the thought is that by helping athletes rearrange their perception of life, it could lead to smarter choices, even during one of the country’s largest big mountain competitions.
“We’re trying to get rid of random decisions, and replace them with quality decision making,” Peter said. “Defining your core values gives you a good foundation for making smart choices.”
A Flyin Ryan Legacy
Ryan Hawks was 25 years old and worked hard to align his life with his passion. It took him seven years to get an engineering degree because he would study for a semester and then take a semester off to go and ski.
“When he graduated, his mom told him, ‘I’m so proud of you. Now you can really get a job,'” Peter said. “He patted her on the shoulder and with a big smile said, ‘You don’t understand. Now I can really focus on my skiing.'”
Ryan excelled on skis and in the warmer months, he thrilled onlookers with his downhill mountain biking skills.
Peter had one conversation with his son about risk management.
“I didn’t want to put any negativity into his thinking, so I said, ‘Ryan, God gave you great judgement. I expect you to use it.”
However, even with good judgement, accidents can happen to anyone, even the best of skiers.
In 2011, Ryan was throwing down the run of his life at Kirkwood. He executed a backflip off a 50-foot cliff perfectly. He stomped the landing, and had a good line going until he hit a rock spire the size of a golf ball.
“At that size, it should have been a deflection, but it wasn’t. It was perfectly aligned,” Peter said. “An inch or so in any direction, it would have been a different outcome. All the force from the crash went straight up through his skeletal structure and ripped open his aorta.”
Ryan held on in the intensive care unit for three days. There was never less than 40 people in the waiting room at any given time.
“That was the impact he had. People felt it was a privilege to know him,” Peter said.
Pro freestyle skier, Angel Collinson, was dating Ryan at the time and actually competed in the same competition.
“Ryan taught me a lot about our ability to make a conscious choice to enjoy life,” she said. “To look for the good instead of focusing on the bad, to find it fun skiing in the rain instead of thinking, Oh man, why is it raining? It should be snowing!
“He taught me that we have a choice to do the things we want to do in our life, and not waste time doing things we don’t enjoy; or, if we actually have to do something we don’t necessarily like, to find things we like about it.”
Adventure In All Forms
After Ryan passed, Mountain Sports International, the company that organizes the Freeskiing World Tour, started a memorial fund for him. That provided roots for Peter and the foundation to grow.
“I wanted to extend the impact of Ryan’s life because I thought it was worth doing,” Peter said.
Peter turned his home office into the Flyin Ryan launching pad. His two daughters help him when they can, and he hired an IT guy to ensure that his role as executive director wasn’t clouded by tech issues.
Since 2011, the foundation has given 84 “adventure scholarships” to deserving individuals looking to improve their lives.
“We say ‘adventure’ on purpose, but it’s not just for the sports industry,” Peter said. “We sent a young girl from rural Vermont to Ecuador for four months, and she lived so far off the grid with a tribe that has no clue that there’s civilization out there.”
After receiving an impressive application from a high school student from east St. Louis, the Flyin Ryan Foundation gave him a college scholarship so that he could attend the University of Tulsa.
“In his essay, he said, ‘I don’t know much about the mountains, but just getting into school and choosing an education is an adventure as opposed to doing what’s customary and expected in my neighborhood,” Peter said. “I asked him to write down his core values after receiving the essay, and two of them were, ‘Respect the law even when it’s uncomfortable’ and ‘Be the facilitator, not the agitator.'”
‘Live to Ski Another Day’
At Big Sky, Peter was given the opportunity to address the contingency of athletes the night before the competition kicked off; those fresh out of college with long dreaded hair, those who work full-time jobs as counselors and teachers, those who were looking to defend their title, and those who were competing for the first time.
Before he made his speech, he outlined his goals.
“I’ll talk to them about how the judges will be looking at controlled aggression, and hopefully they will penalize uncontrolled aggression regardless of its outcome,” he said. “I’ll talk to them about why internal influences (love, joy, gratitude) are positive, and why external influences (the roar of the crowd, awards, sponsors, etc.) are negative, and how those negative influences can distract you from your sense of purpose.”
After showing a video about Ryan, Peter grabbed the microphone.
“You have the right to be the architect of your own decision making. There’s no finish line here,” he said. “You win when you compete for the right reasons.”
Elle Truax was impacted by Ryan’s story and Peter’s words.
In from Crested Butte, Colorado, she was a first-time competitor on the big mountain scene.
“My approach hasn’t changed, but the fact that Ryan did pass away doing what all of us are here to do is in the back of my mind. It shakes you up a bit,” she said. “I haven’t thought about my core values, but I will now.”
JP Guardino, 27, from Vermont, was also in the audience. He actually knew Ryan when they were kids.
“Peter and Ryan have been a huge source of inspiration for me,” he said. “This is a competition so I want to go big, but I also want to make sure that I go home. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from them. ‘Live to ski another day’ is my motto.”
Having A Road Map For Life
Ryan’s former girlfriend, Angel Collinson, made national headlines in January as the “Skier Who Fell 1,000 feet Down an Alaskan Mountain.”
The heart-pounding YouTube video of her tumble is nearing one million views. At the time, she wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary for her, but one slip could have changed the course of her entire life forever, or worse, ended it completely.
She knows the power of Flyin Ryan and the importance of defining one’s own core values, especially after the scare she had in Alaska.
“As a society, we don’t really teach people how to figure out what is important to you, personally. We teach how to set goals, but accomplishing goals only gets you so far if you don’t know deep down what you want out of life and what will make you feel fulfilled,” she said. “Core values are a holistic way to make sure you are setting the right goals for yourself to make your heart and spirit happy. They’re your personal road map for how you want to live.”
So, one index card at a time, Peter is making a difference on the same scene where his lost his son.
“If I can impact one person in a meaningful way, then I’ve been successful,” Peter said.
Clearly, he has done that and so much more. He would get a perfect score from any judge.