(Photo: Pete Willauer)

Why Did One of the World’s Best Skiers Quit? Well, the Boat Had Something to Do with It.

Last year, Angel Collinson surprised everyone when she retired after a decade as a professional athlete. She’s still finding her way.

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It’s the morning of April 5, 2019, in the middle of spine-hunting season for skiers on Alaska’s monster peaks. The skies are blue and the wind is light. The choppers will fly today. It’s also a new moon, which is relevant depending on who you ask. During this lunar phase, the moon is aligned between the sun and earth, making it invisible. This exerts a stronger gravitational pull, resulting in extremes in ocean tides: high highs and low lows. Those who are spiritually inclined note that it’s a good time for manifestation and setting intentions. While sitting in a treehouse in Palmer, a small town on the outskirts of Anchorage, 28-year-old professional skier Angel Collinson makes a list of all the things she wants in her life: to buy property, to love herself deeply, to dance more often. Then she writes that she wants to sail around the world. She has absolutely no idea where that last one came from.

A few hours later, Collinson stands on top of a thousand-foot line in the Chugach Mountains with fellow pros Nick McNutt and Griffin Post. Her small frame is clad in bright, baggy Gore-Tex. A film crew is waiting.

This is what she’s known for. Collinson built her career snaking beautiful turns down improbable faces. She’s one of the best big-mountain skiers in the world and has racked up nearly every accolade possible: she won the Freeskiing World Tour (twice), scored magazine covers, was the first woman to win Powder magazine’s coveted Line of the Year award, and is notable as the first woman to nab the opening and closing segments in a ski movie, something that typically goes to men. In 2016, this magazine published a piece titled “Angel Collinson Just Broke the Ski Industry’s Bro Ceiling.”

The terrain below the trio is over 50 degrees, has complicated sluff management, and starts with a blind rollover—all typical characteristics of the Alaskan lines they’re used to. The skiing is well within Collinson’s ability, but she has to nail it. She consults a photo of the line on her phone so she can visualize. A familiar rush of cortisol and adrenaline floods her system. She long ago made friends with the fear that joins her in these moments.

Now there’s nothing left to do but ski. McNutt goes first and quickly vanishes over the edge.

“How you feeling?” asks Post, while they wait for their turn.

“Feeling good… ish,” she says.

“You got this,” says Post, all he can muster as he tries to wrangle his own nerves.

“Yeah…,” she says, as if she’s unsure of her own answer. “I’m so tired of being scared all the time.”

Post drops in. Then it’s Angel’s turn. As she inches out over the edge, the snow below her black Völkls falls away into nothing. She takes a deep breath and drops in, laying down a few smooth turns. She needs to hit the ridge at just the right spot, but comes in a few feet too low. She stops, apologizes to the camera crew over the radio, and resets. She executes a sketchy kick turn and starts again. Almost immediately, her downhill ski punches through an unexpected layer of crust and lodges itself in the snow. The impact whips her backwards, spinning her downhill. Somehow she regains her edges, only to find herself atop a patch of exposed rocks. She hops and side-steps over them in a desperate attempt to recover, but falls again. Maybe I can stop, she thinks.

She can’t. Collinson tomahawks violently down the steep face, picking up speed. Her body cartwheels. Her skis are still attached. She feels a big, obvious pop: ACL, MCL, and meniscus. Post and McNutt watch in horror from below as her body rag-dolls down the face. Her vision blurs into a torrent of white as she tumbles nearly a thousand feet before sliding to a halt near the bottom of the slope.

“I’m all right,” she says calmly over the radio. Then she flips her camera around and films herself. Her face is flushed and her blond locks are a mess of snow and ice. “How do you like my hair?” she jokes, before exhaling. “That was gnarly.”

That morning when Collinson wrote down a list of things that would populate her dream life, skiing wasn’t on it.

Angel Collinson, Retallack, British Columbia
Collinson making a powder turn in Retallack, British Columbia (Adam Clark)

Angel’s dad, Jim, says that skiing chose her, not the other way around.

“I definitely didn’t consciously choose it,” Angel says, “but it was so clear that skiing was my path. Where you’re like, This is my jam. I know I’m good at this.” And when you’re that good, what else would you do?

Collinson grew up in employee housing at Utah’s Snowbird resort, where Jim worked as a patroller. Angel and her younger brother, John, shared a bunk bed that was jammed inside a closet. Homeschooled by their mother, Deb, the kids skied most days and took to the sport easily. Money was tight, but the spirit of adventure—and comfort on big mountains—was abundant. For ten summers, the family lived out of their 1979 Ford Econoline. One year they climbed a proud lineup of 14,000-foot peaks: Mount Whitney, Mount Shasta, and Mount Rainier. Angel was six.

Angel dedicated her entire childhood to ski racing. “She was so gifted on skis, and that coupled with her perfectionism made her great,” says John. Her internal drive translated into every area of life. John remembers when their mom assigned a homeschool art project. He banged out an oil painting in an hour and moved on. Not Angel. “She spent months adding tiny details and perfecting hers just so. Once she started something, she’d have to work it to the finest detail,” he says.

But she didn’t try soccer or learn to play the saxophone, and she wasn’t seeking out red Solo cups at weekend parties. Skiing was it. “It was very one-dimensional,” she says. “I feel like I sacrificed a lot for the first 18 years of my life.” John had a similar experience when he was younger, sometimes wishing he could do team sports like the other kids.

After getting passed over for the U.S. ski-racing team in 2009, Angel switched gears, enrolling at the University of Utah on a full-ride academic scholarship. With skiing on the back burner, she could pursue a career as a lawyer focused on environmental policy. But during her freshman year, John convinced her to join the Freeskiing World Tour, the preeminent big-mountain ski competition, which showcases athletes’ ability to choose creative, aggressive lines down technical faces. “She was the best skier I knew and was still paying for skis and paying her own way to training camps,” he says. Meanwhile, companies had started to offer him gear, skis, and paying contracts.

In 2010, Angel won the title. The next year, she was competing on the tour alongside her boyfriend, 25-year-old Ryan Hawks. They’d only been dating for a few months but had an immediate, powerful connection. She watched as he threw a huge backflip off a 40-foot cliff in Kirkwood, California, and landed hard. He didn’t get up. Angel skied her line, went straight to the hospital to see him, and held his hand as he died.

She’s carried the lessons she learned from Hawks with her. He’d say that we only have control over two things in life: attitude and effort. In his death, she started to be more open to what she calls the mystery of life, and began thinking more about how she wanted to live hers. That year she won the title again. Then she dropped out of college. Skiing had sucked her back in.

“There was a magic period when I was getting into it that I was just surprising myself and surprising other people. I saw my potential,” she says, her hazel eyes sparkling. Collinson was always trying to improve and perform at her own high standards. “There was a honeymoon phase with big-mountain skiing where I didn’t have any expectations of myself and I just wanted to keep skiing better than I did the day before, the year before.”

In 2014, she scored the opening segment in the ski film Almost Ablaze. It was the first time in Teton Gravity Research (TGR) history that the production company opened a movie with a female skier. She was skiing the best she ever had, and her career really started to take off. Her goals were to ski in Alaska and be featured in ski films, and she was finally doing it. By any measure, she’d found huge, sweeping success.

“She was at the absolute top,” says John. “You couldn’t really ask for more out of a career in skiing than that.” But in 2015, she started to get a nagging feeling that she couldn’t shake.

“I started to realize that I wasn’t fulfilled by skiing,” she says. “I was like, OK, but what else is there in life, and how do I get there?”

The crash in 2019 wasn’t her first big fall. She fell a thousand feet down another line in Alaska a few years before. The footage was so terrifying that Good Morning America had her on to talk about it.

“Angel, are you fearless?” they asked, in the oblivious way of morning hosts.

“No, I definitely always have a bit of fear before I do stuff,” she says, clad in a North Face T-shirt and wearing a silver nose ring. “I feel like professional skiing is knowing the difference between the fear in your gut when you shouldn’t do something or just a little bit of nervous fear that we always have.”

That morning when Collinson wrote down a list of things that would populate her dream life, skiing wasn’t on it.

After her 2019 injury, Collinson welcomed the break from skiing. Rehabbing her knee offered a window to explore other interests without pressure. Instead of doing her physical-therapy exercises, she spent the summer dancing vigorously. Her quads: fire. Her glutes: fully activated. She was getting back to normal, but in her own way.

It was in that state of mind that she met Pete Willauer in Jackson, Wyoming, later that year. He was working at TGR, and she was in the office checking out her footage from the season. The pair quickly discovered that they were not only strikingly compatible but shared a dream of sailing around the world. On their third date, while Willauer was teaching her to sail on Jackson Lake, they decided they’d do it. A few weeks later, while in Maine, Willauer sent a note to the owners of a boat that wasn’t for sale. Soon after, they proudly called the Sea Bear, a 40-foot steel sailboat, their own.

Collinson felt reinvigorated. Maybe she could create a life where she explored her newfound passion for sailing while also continuing to ski. She started thinking of ways to pitch this next phase of her career to her sponsors.

That idea didn’t last long. On a winter day in early 2021, Collinson was getting ready to film at Alta, Utah, with her brother and Willauer. It was supposed to be a fun, easy few hours ripping turns with her favorite people. The problem was that she couldn’t get out of bed. When she eventually did, she just stood at the front door, crying. She felt lame for breaking down, then she felt guilty about feeling lame. What’s my problem? she thought. But she already knew. Something was finally saying: no more.

When the group finally made it out the door, conditions weren’t good, but they still needed to get a few shots. On the lift up, John suggested they just go ski fast down some groomers. Angel started crying. “It took me a while to grasp what was happening,” says John. “There were a few days where it really started to hit me that it was over for her.”

She was tired of pretending, tired of forcing it. “I was so burnt out and so over it, my soul was screaming,” she says. “There was a clear moment when I was just like, I’m so done skiing. I can’t even fake my way through. I cannot do this anymore.”

She’d felt like a fraud for most of her skiing career. “It was like I was carrying this dirty secret: I don’t love skiing that much, and I’m kind of over it,” she says. “I thought that made me unappreciative or ungrateful. I wasn’t, but I never wanted to talk about it because it was everyone else’s dream.” It just wasn’t her dream.

For years Collinson had experienced some version of this feeling, but she just didn’t know how to be done skiing. Other than a brief stint as a raft guide, the only job she’d ever had was skiing. How would she make money? How would she spend her time? She made a list of all the possible worst-case scenarios: everyone will think she’s lost her mind, she’ll go bankrupt, become irrelevant, lose all her followers on her social media.

The exercise was cathartic. “Well, hell, even if all that happens, I’ll still probably be fine,” she figured. “I got to a place where I was willing to lose everything in order to go for it.”

Angel Collinson (center), Michelle Parker (left), and Elyse Saugstad filming with Matchstick Productions in Girdwood, Alaska
Collinson (center) goofing around with pro skiers Michelle Parker (left) and Elyse Saugstad while filming with Matchstick Productions in Girdwood, Alaska (Jeff Cricco)

In October 2021, Collinson sat below deck on the Sea Bear and recorded a video for her Instagram account. She was docked in the Canary Islands with Willauer after they’d completed their first crossing of the Atlantic. Her hair was newly cropped and buzzed on one side. Her head looked unfamiliar without the usual beanie or ski helmet plastered with loud sponsor logos. A warm smile lit up her face.

“Sometimes things break us. Sometimes we break open. Sometimes we break down. Sometimes we break free,” she began, the words flowing easily. “I feel stuck. How do I get free? I don’t trust myself, I’m scared. Do you see yourself in me?”

Collinson posed a question to the viewer: “Is there a skin that you’re aching to shed, and are you afraid to let go of something? Is there something that you’re longing to move toward but don’t know where to start? And if so, I really get it. And I’m in your corner, for whenever you’re ready to take the leap. You’ll know.”

For weeks she’d been agonizing over making this announcement. She didn’t know how to put what she was feeling into words, and it was eating her alive. Finally, she rode a scooter to a café and wrote an essay she titled “Inquest of What Excites You; Announcements and Confessions from the Other Side.” In the video, she’s reading the piece aloud.

“I’ve flown down the most beautiful of earth’s snowy faces, and I also know sometimes the things that free us can also cage us. Sometimes we outgrow our boxes,” she continued, her eyes starting to fill with tears. “So now, back to breaking open. It’s time to say: Skiing, it’s been real. It’s been a hell of a ride. And new and more expansive horizons await the other side.”

Angel Collinson filming with Matchstick Productions in Girdwood, Alaska
Collinson filming with Matchstick Productions in Girdwood, Alaska (Jeff Cricco)
Collinson raising the sail on Sea Bear as she departs the Cayman Islands for Panama (Pete Willauer)

Collinson was wary of what might happen when she turned her whole life upside down, but she knew the greatest challenge was going to be financial. While her ski contracts didn’t make her rich, she could live comfortably and save, which allowed her and Willauer to split the $70,000 cost of Sea Bear. When I asked her if anyone thought she was living off a trust fund, she grabbed her computer and pulled up her tax returns. It used to really bother her, but not anymore. She has no qualms talking about money.

In 2019, her gross income was $109,000, but after deducting her expenses, her income was $20,000. Tax whizzes may read that as a woman who is savvy with write-offs, but her payments from sponsors included expenses—so when she traveled to things like film premieres and film shoots, she swiped her own card. Filming in Alaska, for example, runs about $8,000 per week for lodging, food, and heli drops. A three-week trip to film could easily cost $25,000. In 2018, her best year, she made $85,000 after expenses and paid $20,000 in taxes.

When she quit, all of Collinson’s sponsors dropped her, except for one: Smartwool. “I was like, OK, so what?” says Alex Pashley, the brand’s athlete manager. Pashley had come to admire how Collinson told her own story and how she spoke up about mental health. “I don’t need you skiing down Alaskan peaks anymore. If you want to hop in a boat and scare yourself out on the open ocean, that sounds great, too,” he told her.

Collinson’s new career path? A certified Ayurvedic health coach. The practice helped her find relief from a strange, prolonged bout of extreme fatigue and depression in 2017, when Western medicine failed to offer a solution. “I love being able to help people feel better and find fulfillment, because I know what it’s like to feel sick and to feel stuck,” she says. “How do we actually change our lifestyle habits to architect the life we want?” Collinson spent about six months working with clients until she moved onto Sea Bear full time and plans to restart the business whenever life takes her back to terra firma with good Wi-Fi.

Her goal was to ski in Alaska and be featured in ski films, and she was finally doing it. By any measure, she’d found huge, sweeping success.

So far, none of Collinson’s worst-case scenarios have come true. After she posted the video, she didn’t want to look at her phone. Her followers, she thought, would surely be leaving en masse. But when she did look, she was stunned. Heartwarming, supportive messages were flooding in. Her family—rooted as they are in the ski world—has rallied behind her, too. “At first, I didn’t get it. How could you not like this? You’re so good at it!” recalls John. He thinks that a lot of people might feel like he once did. “I imagine she was probably straying farther from her own truth and the whole time trying to put the mask on, like, ‘This is so fun! I love it!’ That would be really tough. I can’t imagine it, honestly, because I don’t think I could do it. I didn’t realize she was ready to take on a whole new journey and move into the unknown. I’m really proud of her.”

Post was also surprised and impressed by Collinson’s decision. “Watching her walk away so easily, and at the height of her career, was inspiring to see,” he says. He understands that skiing can often require a singular focus. “To see Angel recognize that she has other talents and this isn’t the only thing for her is a cool lesson for anybody, and not just in the ski world but any career path.” But if Collinson were to call Post up one day and say she wants to get back into skiing, he’d be stoked. “Hell yeah,” he’d say. “We miss you.”

Collinson filleting her prize catch, a mahi-mahi, which fed her and Willauer (Pete Willauer)

Last December, Collinson and Willauer sailed toward the idyllic Caribbean island of Grenada. She was right where she was meant to be—at least that’s what she kept telling herself. Sailing hadn’t been the easiest dream to carry out. It was less tropical waters, cold beers, and calm days lounging in the sun, and more hard labor and problem-solving. On the boat, everything was new, and there was always a problem to solve: navigation, weather, logistics. It sometimes took all day to find an adequate anchorage. Good sleep was hard to come by. There was no such thing as a good poop.

The pair wasn’t in Grenada to sunbathe, though. Instead, they pulled Sea Bear out of the water so they could spend a few weeks removing rust from its hull and trying to fix its wiggling mast. The air was hot and sticky. Morale was low. When they finally got the boat back out on the water the following month they expected to feel flooded with relief, and maybe even joy, but neither came.

Willauer, lying on a bench a few feet too small for his six-foot-two frame, said to Collinson, “I feel like we could be thriving much more than we are.” He was right. All their money was in the boat, there was no money coming in. Collinson’s brain went on a tear: Am I in over my head? Did I make the wrong move? Can we fix this?

“I had like ten million moments of self-doubt,” she says. “Like, Oh, god. What am I doing? What’s next?” But she didn’t quit skiing because she was scared. She’d spent her life building an intimate relationship with fear. And she’s still drawn to the edges of life’s experiences, to her limits, even if that exploration doesn’t happen in the alpine anymore. Yet in leaving skiing, she was looking for a different kind of fear, one that helped her grow rather than wore her down. At the top of a ski line, you know exactly what you’re afraid of. “The fear of the unknown,” she says, “is a lot more challenging to navigate.”

Willauer and Collinson aboard the Sea Bear (Pete Willauer)

As cliché as it might sound, Collinson admits that her first experience at Burning Man, in 2015, woke her up. “I’ve always felt like an outsider for being weird,” she says. “I’ve spent my life around the outdoor crowd trying to hide my weirdness.” She felt disconnected hanging out with diehard pro skiers who only talked about skiing and would drink beers to pass the time. But when she started connecting with artists, musicians, and creatives? “I was like, these are my people. I’d be up talking until 3 A.M., just so engaged with the way they viewed life and how they lived in such a different way than me,” she says. “It was almost like the more that I got involved with other parts of humanity and culture that I hadn’t associated with before, the more disinterested I got in skiing.”

At Burning Man this past August, she had another awakening. People were complaining about the heat and dust in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, but all she could think of was how life felt way easier there than it did on Sea Bear.

In leaving skiing, she was looking for a different kind of fear, one that helped her grow rather than wore her down.

Could it be time to dream up a new way of life that feels a little more sustainable? Out there in the desert, she offered up a prayer to the universe: I have no idea what to do; will you help?

A few days later, she woke up to the thought that she and Willauer should rent a place in Boulder, Colorado, where she has a strong community. She’s open to what it might look like to reenvision their sailing dream to include a little more time on land. Maybe they’ll find a place in Latin America on the water so they can take Sea Bear out on the weekends? Or maybe just somewhere that she can find a routine and have space to restart her coaching business. At the very least, somewhere she can find good sleep and have regular poops.

She still plans to continue sailing around the world with Willauer, through the Panama Canal and to the South Pacific, but the timeline will likely shift. And that’s Ok. Whatever the answer is, she finally trusts herself to recognize the right thing when she sees it.

Lead Photo: Pete Willauer