Like NFL quarterback Tom Brady and NBA forward LeBron James, wheelchair racer Peter Hawkins, of Malverne, continues to find success even as he ages. Hawkins, who turned 54 on May 9, won the wheelchair division race in this year’s annual Long Island Marathon for the 25th time, finishing in a time of 2 hours, 11 minutes, 11 seconds.
“This year was a good year,” Hawkins said. “It was a tough winter as far as the training goes, but this was one of the best weather days we’ve had, so that was kind of nice.”
Roughly 5,000 people take part in the Long Island Marathon, which has been around for almost 50 years. Hawkins, who has competed in the event nearly 30 times, said that with each year he wins, the level of expectation grows.
“Anybody who has competed at whatever level, if you start to slack off, people start to notice,” he said. “I’m probably harder on myself than anybody else. The older you get, the more you realize that you have to keep moving.”
Hawkins trains five days a week to strengthen his shoulders, back and arms, the muscles that do all the work in wheelchair racing. His trainer, Dr. Ken Leistner, a chiropractor from East Rockaway, said that in their 30 years together, Hawkins’s drive has never wavered. Hawkins learned about Leistner through a friend at Valley Stream Central High School, Tom Cahill, who mentioned Leistner’s expertise as a chiropractor and strength trainer.
“When it’s time for him to train, we throw everything at him, including the kitchen sink,” Leistner said. “He expects to be pushed to his limit every workout, and to be challenged as much as possible.”
Hawkins was paralyzed from the waist down in a near-fatal car accident in 1981. He acknowledged that he and a friend had been drinking before they got into the car, and Hawkins was in the passenger seat. After several months of rehab, the former high school varsity football and lacrosse player initially shunned wheelchair racing, but eventually turned to it to stay active and in shape.
“The racing has given me a tremendous outlet. Just for my own sanity,” Hawkins said. “And when you go from being a guy who everything you identify yourself with was through athletics, and all of a su171dden that’s gone, you say to yourself, ‘Well, what do I do now?’”
In 1985, Hawkins began a career as a motivational speaker after his former football coach, Lou Tuorto, asked him to share his story with the team. Hawkins had worked as a coach of the seventh- and eighth-grade football team at Valley Stream Memorial Junior High and as assistant coach of Valley Stream Central’s lacrosse team from 1986 to 1989.
Today, he talks to young people across the nation about the dangers of drinking and driving. When he speaks, he plays a video of himself taken during his football-playing days.
“I wanted them to see the drastic difference in what I was to where I am now, because that’s where the impact is made,” Hawkins said. “When they can see the guy that just did a flip in the end zone with full equipment is the same guy who’s now in a wheelchair and can’t stand up, that’s a tremendous difference.”
With the help of his presentations, he said, he hopes young adults will learn to make the right decisions. The second-most important thing, he said, “is that there are going to be things that happen to you in your life, but as long as you believe in yourself, you can get past anything. I can only hope that I can keep finding ways to positively influence people.”
Hawkins competes in wheelchair races around the country and the world, in places like Thailand, Korea and Japan. The competition and camaraderie he’s developed with other racers over the years keeps him motivated, he said.
“I was able to take the worst situation I could have ever imagined in the world and . . . turn it into something positive,” he said. “I don’t ever say that I’ve accepted it, but I’ve come to terms with it. I’m going to keep going as long as I can, and as long as it still entertains me.”