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December 18, 2013

Designing a storybook career

By: Marc Mullen

Overcoming the demands of being an architecture major, Tech diver Ryan Hawkins has earned three All-America honors athletically and two academically – but he isn’t done yet

Ryan Hawkins’ career has been a perfect ‘10,’ as he’s earned All-America honors both in the pool and in the classroom.

It isn’t that common of a first name, Logan, even though parents have used it for both boys and girls for some time now. The name’s never been higher than 17th on the most common names’ list, and that ranking came in 2007. Coincidentally, however, seven Virginia Tech student-athletes had that name during the 2012-13 academic year – more than the previous 15 years combined – and, as chronicled earlier in this magazine, the people on that list includes one of the best quarterbacks ever to suit up for the Hokies.

The same could be true for the Virginia Tech diving program, as many will long remember the exploits of Logan Shinholser over the past four seasons. He became the most decorated diver at the school and graduated as both the pool and school record holder in every diving discipline.

His former teammate and synchronized diving partner, Ryan Hawkins, is hoping to supplant Shinholser from that top spot as he constructs his own legacy. Hawkins’ goals for the season are lofty, as he admits, but for a man who has overcome a physical disability at birth, logs more hours in the studio than in the pool and believes he performs better under pressure, he loves the challenge – and it would be hard to imagine him not succeeding.

“Personally, I kind of set a pretty big goal for myself at ACCs [the ACC Championships], but I want to go top three in everything [all three diving events], which would be insane,” Hawkins said. “That would be a huge ACC meet. Like what Logan did the past two years. That would be wild, but would require a perfect meet.

“Then at the NCAAs [the NCAA Championships], I want to go top eight on all three, which again is another huge goal. Final on everything at NCAAs and top three on everything at ACCs would be amazing. I usually like to set two goals, so I’ll say that, and then I will go top eight on everything at ACCs and top 16 at NCAAs and that would be a great year.”

Shinholser walked away from Blacksburg with three ACC titles, one each in the 1-meter, 3-meter and platform events. He was actually on his way to winning all three disciplines at the 2012 ACC Championships, going for a repeat on the platform. But Hawkins – who was kind of in the middle of a sophomore slump – battled him dive for dive.

Hawkins’ freshman campaign saw him place fourth in both the 1-meter and 3-meter events at the 2011 ACC Championships, actually ahead of Shinholser in both. Shinholser edged him in the platform event, winning it while Hawkins finished fifth. But Hawkins turned in quite respectable performances at his first NCAA meet.

In 2012, though, Hawkins didn’t reach the finals in either of the first two diving events at the ACC meet, but he found himself in gold-medal contention with Shinholser in the finals of platform diving.

“I would say the first meet I knew I could dive at this level was the ACCs on platform my sophomore year when I got first place,” he said. “That was kind of a huge deal because [Duke’s] Nick McCrory was redshirting [in preparation] for the Olympics, and that’s when I beat Logan – the first and only time I ever beat him on platform.

“Logan talked to me before my last dive, and he said, ‘Go up there and hit this one, man. You’ve got this.’ And as soon as he said that, I knew we were like really close. So I knew whoever hit the last dive was going to win it, and I guess, knowing that I controlled that, I kept my composure and actually did a good last dive. It was kind of crazy, but I knew I could do it.

“Then he goes up and hits his last dive, too. That was the best part. He hit his last dive, too, and we were less than a point apart. So I barely knocked him out. That was probably one of my best moments of my diving career.”

Ryan Hawkins decided to major in architecture to put his creative side to use and because of his love of designing things.

Hawkins, who won by 0.70 points, would go on to earn an All-America honor with a seventh-place finish at the 2012 NCAA Championships in the platform event and would follow that with two more honors last season (in the 3-meter and platform events), bringing his total to three, just one shy of Shinholser’s four.

In qualifying for the 2013 platform finals, Hawkins finished the preliminaries in third place – the highest finish by any Tech diver or swimmer in the preliminaries of an NCAA event – and he went on to finish eighth in the finals.

“Last year, preliminaries at NCAAs – finals were kind of rough – but prelims, on platform, I knew that I could get top five, but when I got third place, that was a pretty big deal,” he said. “That one was strange, too, because I wasn’t even worried about keeping my composure or getting nervous. I was just kind of diving, and that was cool.”

It has been chronicled several times during his maturation into the diver he is today, but Hawkins’ rise into the sport almost never happened. Hawkins, like his sister, was born with a clubfoot, which appears once in approximately every 1,000 births.

His sister Heather’s was corrected with a cast and corrective shoes, but Ryan’s case was more severe. On Feb. 10, 1993 – almost 19 years to the day before winning his first ACC title (Feb. 18, 2012) – he had surgery.

“Mine was a little bit different, so I had surgery when I was 1, and they took the cast off a year later,” Hawkins said. “They put rods through it to straighten it out and then took them out. I was supposed to have surgery again when I was 5 and then when I was 15, but I didn’t have to go in because it straightened out the first time.

“I have a picture of the cast, and I still have part of it somewhere. The only thing I have left is a scar that starts from my lower calf and goes down below my foot, and my calf [which is noticeably smaller].

“Growing up, I was strangely normal. It’s weird because I don’t even really notice it and other people don’t notice it until I tell them about it. When I was younger, I was probably the fastest runner in my class in middle school. I was the fastest kid, which was kind of strange, and I almost have the highest vertical on the team, with a half calf.”

Hawkins has a pair of Capital One Academic All-America honors on his resumé as well, so he’s no dummy. His choice to attend Virginia Tech was whittled down from a number of schools that included Indiana, Ohio State and Georgia. Kentucky was also in the mix because of its diving coach, Ted Hautau, who saw raw talent in an 11-year-old Hawkins back in his hometown of Charlotte, N.C., and molded him into a two-time state champion and a finalist at many junior and senior national meets.

“I looked here because I’ve known Ron [Piemonte, Tech’s diving coach] since I was a little kid,” Hawkins said. “They’re all great schools and all have great diving programs, but I was a pretty good student in high school, and academics is what I am going to be doing the rest of my life and will set me up for a job and a career. I either wanted to go into engineering or architecture, so I looked at every school that offered both engineering and architectural programs.

“I narrowed it down to Ohio State and Virginia Tech pretty quick. When I came here and saw the architecture program here and I saw Cowgill Hall … when I walked into it, it was just this huge open room with desks and models and a lot of hands-on things. They just make things in there. Kathryn Albright [chair of the Foundation Program in the School of Architecture] gave me the tour, and when she opened the door and I saw all the stuff, I was like, ‘Wow this is sick! This is what I want to do.’ I think that’s what sold it for me.”

Hawkins never saw himself as a creative person and credits his mom, Robin, in seeing his creative side. When he was younger, he used to make things with Legos or K’NEX building toys, but never really equated the two. He is now majoring in architecture, which requires a hefty commitment to studio hours.

“Looking back, what really drew me in was the hands-on model making … I just love making models,” Hawkins said. “But people are always saying to me, ‘I don’t know how you do it. You don’t sleep.’ But honestly, it feels natural to me. I like being busy. Last year, I was super busy, and this past year, I’ve kind of been lazy. I haven’t been doing things nonstop.

Ryan Hawkins and other members of his architecture class designed this pedestrian bridge that connected downtown Clifton Forge, Va., to a new public park and the Masonic Amphitheater.

“I haven’t been in studio until 2 in the morning except for a couple of nights. When I stop doing stuff, I feel like I stop doing everything. I was never the kind of person who just sat down and just did nothing. It’s not like a chore. I get into a rhythm.

“Last year, when I was busy, I got into a groove where I averaged just four hours a sleep, and that sounds horrible. But at the time, I had so much energy. I felt fine. With that, though, I’m also learning more about myself, as I get older. I don’t know, but I’m almost better under pressure at crunch time.”

Crunch time for his collegiate athletic career will begin around the middle of February and end in late March, but the end of the 2013-14 academic year will not mark the end to Hawkins’ time in Blacksburg. The architectural program at Tech is a five-year program, so he will be back at school next year, and he has been contemplating what his next step athletically and professionally will be.

“I’ll be here my fifth year. It’s a thesis, so, it’s going to be really busy in studio,” Hawkins said. “I’m still going to practice, probably, that fifth year. I’ll see how it goes. I’m going to try to put on some weight and learn some new dives. I’ll probably only practice two or three times a week, or that’s at least what I’m planning on now.

“My sixth year is going to depend on what happens next year. I know that I can stay here and get my master’s in architecture. I don’t know if I really want to do that. It’s just all speculation right now. Next year, I’m going to dive two or three times a week and see how it goes, and that will determine if I stick around for another year for the next trials.”

The “trials” that Hawkins referred to is the 2016 USA Olympic Trials, which will determine the divers who qualify for the Games of the XXXI Olympiad being held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Those seem like, again, lofty goals, but it wouldn’t be the first time he was at the Olympic Trials.

Back in 2012, Shinholser and Hawkins competed in the trials for the London Olympics as synchronized diving partners. In December of 2011, they finished sixth in the 3-meter and fourth in the platform event at the USA Winter National Championships, and Hawkins still eyes that prize, but he’ll need to find another partner.

“The Olympic Trials were awesome. It was amazing,” Hawkins said. “It was sick, too, that Logan and I actually qualified pretty early with our synchro – 3-meter and platform. But the competition was just insane. It was pretty cool, and it just made you feel so special.

“But this time, I’m not doing it with Logan. He’s done. He dumped me before he finished his senior year because he’s completely done diving. So I’ve actually been looking for a synchro partner lately. It’s really strange. It’s really like relationships.

“The thing is, if you want to do synchro with someone, they already have a partner typically. So then they’d have to break up, and then you have to ask them out. So it’s really awkward and strange. Then, some people have asked me to do synchro, but I’m like, ‘I want to do it with this person, and they want to do it with me, but they already have a partner.’ So it really is like relationships.”

For now, though, Hawkins, who just recently broke the 3-meter diving record previously held by Shinholser by 11 points, is concentrating on creating as few splashes as he can in the pool over the next four months to finish his Tech career as one of the best, if not the best, Hokie ever, athletically or academically.

Only Jessica Botzum (2004-08), with five, and Shinholser, have earned more All-America honors than Hawkins, and he joined Botzum as the only Hokies to be named two-time Academic All-Americans.

He’s already constructed quite a career. Tech fans will have to wait and see where his future designs take him.