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.”