Shane McConkey was more than just a skier

“We learned so much from that one silly boy.”

Sherry McConkey delivers the hammer line at the end of McConkey, the documentary about her husband Shane’s life. Shane McConkey died after equipment failure during a ski BASE jump in the Italian Dolomites on March 26, 2009. When Sherry talks about Shane, the weight of that event hangs over her words, drawing on emotion and loss. Yet it is almost immediately overshadowed by laughter, joy and, most palpably, by abiding, unyielding love. Shane McConkey is still very much alive in his wife’s heart and in the smiles and actions of his daughter, Ayla. McConkey was arguably one of the world’s most badass skiers. But Shane’s most incredible performance was one of subtlety.

Shane’s skiing skills were, ahem, noticed. In 1994, McConkey took home the South American Freeskiing Championship. In 1995 he defended his title down south and added the US National Freeskiing championship. He then claimed the European freeski title in 1996 to complete global dominance. In 1998, 1999 and 2000 he reached the podium in the freeskiing world tour, freeskiing national and international events and the XGames. ESPN named McConkey Skier of the Year in 2001, and he claimed the top spot in Powder Magazine’s Reader Poll in 2002. All the while, McConkey appeared in more ski movies than most skiers see in a lifetime. Over twenty films in close to as many years, McConkey always dropped the jaws of adoring ski bum audiences with his unique style – the McConkey swing is a showstopper – and his insane balls-to-the-wall ferocity.

Aside from collecting blue ribbons, awards and trophies like the rest of us collect core shots and broken poles, McConkey was a ski technology revolutionary. In 1996, he first drew the concept of reverse camber and reverse sidecut on a cocktail napkin after using the Volant Chubb – a 90mm waisted ski – as an everyday option. By today’s standards, Chubb would be considered a frontside cutter, but in the mid-nineties it was a pure pow plank. Positive that his bigger-is-better design was the wave of the future, McConkey mounted two water skis and shredded a fat, powdery Alaska spine. It worked. Volant produced the Spatula in 2001 and K2 made the Pontoon in 2006. Since McConkey’s fat powder skiing revolution, skiing has never been the same, nor has the sport had such access to pure, unadulterated powder skiing fun.

Skier McConkey was impressive. The jokester and prankster Shane was in a league of his own. To understand the humor of the male form, Shane McConkey had a penchant for nudity. During his final high school run at Burke Academy, Shane wore number 44..and only that. After DQing at a promo gold event in Vail, showman Shane finished the track with a backflip, for which Vail pulled his lift pass on the spot. In response, Shane skied the track in the buff and completed one of the most iconic spread eagles in skiing history – the picture is amazing. He did the same nude spreadie during his first shoot with Matchstick Productions.

McConkey loved making fun of the ski industry and making friends. He invented Saucer Boy as a way to cripple action sports’ extreme bro attitude. He hides passports and unemployment benefits from skiing partners. Breaking wind was an art form, as was hiding prophylactics in the jacket pockets or luggage of one’s friends. Have you ever tried to explain a year’s worth of condoms to the TSA?

Shane’s career was spent in the red; dream big, move fast and send it. But many fans don’t know what really made him bad. Even as the ski world elevated him to the supreme overlord of gnar, McConkey never took himself too seriously. Sherry says her husband knew that laughter is the soundtrack to a happy life and that the heart must be the conductor of the symphony.

“He was so honest in everything he did,” says Sherry. “It was amazing how real he could be. And it’s amazing how he’s inspired so many people not to take themselves too seriously. I just saw a picture of Amie Engerbretson humping a tree in the middle of the woods. Because to me it’s Shane, fun, natural and normal. Anyway, we’re all just a bunch of idiots.”

Shane truly shined as a loving, attentive husband and father, albeit with some growing pains. “He was the best man in the world … but when Ayla was born, he was pathetic,” jokes Sherry. “I blame myself. I was a neurotic mother. I was so attached to her. But the moment she could talk and walk, everything changed. It was the sweetest, funniest, most beautiful relationship I’ve ever seen. He just walked around with her and adored her. He was just funny.”

“Toward the end, he just fell so deeply in love with both of us again,” Sherry recalls. “It was beautiful. On powder days, he took her to the ball. I think he realized how great it was to be a father.”

The throne of hindsight allows for easy judgment. After Shane’s death, critics condemned the way he lived his life. Sherry has felt the criticism, but handled it with a stiff arm. “Well, thank God people don’t get it, or our mountains would be more polluted and a lot more crowded,” she says sarcastically. “I just try to empathize with those people. But they’re never going to understand his life and how he chose to live. They’re always going to live in their cubicle and fiddle with their computer. Shane wasn’t a selfish adrenaline- junkie, but those kinds of people don’t understand our lives and our passions. He was a hard worker, a passionate person and a loving husband and father. He was the best.”

McConkey’s influence on the skiing world resonates today as loudly as it did in his lifetime. The deep snow turns, the lift line high fives, the quotes from Saucer Boy – “I can stick uphill ice!” – McConkey will forever be part of ski culture. And Shane will always be with Sherry and Ayla. “There’s just so much of that guy,” says Sherry. “Ayla has his empathy and she’s definitely goofy like him. Her sense of humor is fun, like her dad. And she’s definitely competitive and likes attention. She’s observant. She’s a lot like Shane…He’s in us all the time. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t do the things he used to do. We have fun. We keep Shane around every day.”

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