“He wasn't just some stupid adrenaline junkie,” says Sherry McConkey, of her late husband, Shane. “He had an incredible heart, and was an incredible husband, and father. That for me was the most important thing, for people to see how he lived.”
The 2009 death of the pro skier and BASE-jumper in the Dolomites at age 39 stirred not just sadness, but also criticism of a man who spent his life pioneering how to push ever-bigger limits outdoors. McConkey was known as a stylish, aggressive athlete with a playful side, and also helped advance a sport in which enthusiasts leap or ski off of structures with wingsuits and parachutes, letting them fly unencumbered at low altitudes before landing. According to a a 2009 statement to ESPN by J.T. Holmes, McConkey's skis failed to release quickly, and he was not able to deploy his parachute. Holmes, also a professional skier, was with him on his final trip.
In the aftermath of McConkey's fatal accident, Sherry saw an outpouring of support from their community in Lake Tahoe and beyond. But she also faced tough questions: Should a husband and father of a toddler be jumping off cliffs, some asked, much less inventing new ways to do it?
“So many people criticized him when he died,” says Sherry. “It made me so mad.”
With the new documentary McConkey, co-exec producer Sherry and some of Shane's inner circle offer an indirect rebuttal, while also celebrating what he stood for. In the film, which plays at the Regent Theater through Oct. 16, McConkey's friends, parents, college pals, pro skiers, and more share their memories of the larger-than-life athlete, from his childhood on the slopes, to his darker days in Colorado and his rise to fame in Squaw Valley.
But there's an undeniable tension running through the film. For action sport enthusiasts and pros, the fine line between selfishness and fun underscores every decision. “It's such a long subject that we could debate this for hours,” says Sherry. “But Shane … was born that way, he was born to seek the thrill all the time. He was a pioneer of a sport, and so whether he'd had all the sponsors or anyone, he would have still done it.”
As McConkey got older and had a family, says co-director Scott Gaffney, “I think it shifted for Shane.” Gaffney, a longtime friend of McConkey's, filmed him for years for Matchstick Productions, a ski film company that produced the movie in association with Red Bull Media House.
Yet, says Sherry, “It wasn't as if I could take it away and say, 'You know what, what if you die?' Because you knew he could die. You can't stop somebody from doing something. That's part of life, and otherwise, why live?
“A lot of people who do this sport know that yes, you could end up in a wheel chair, or you could die — but I'm not going to teach [our daughter] Ayla that. I'm not going to stop living my life, [but] I'm going to make sure everything is calculated. And Shane did that too. He didn't go out there and huck himself off the cliffs.”
Says Gaffney, also a father, “There are times when you're standing on the top of something looking down, and you do think of your family. But people don't really understand how on top of it Shane really was. Some things that people look at as insane were totally comfortable for him, and he had control of [them].
“Like that accident that took his life, was just that: an accident. He had thought everything through, he had done all of his homework.”
Gaffney first learned of McConkey when the ingenue was still in Colorado, having been kicked out of college. “He was delivering pizza [to my brother's house],” Gaffney says, “and saw how many skis were leaning on [his] wall.” Shane invited the brother and his friends to see one of the first ski movies he appeared in, which was playing that night.
“And they couldn't believe how hard the Dominos pizza boy ripped,” says Gaffney.
McConkey is more of a traditional biopic than typical, action-heavy ski movies. It was largely assembled from archival and movie footage of its star, and traces his highs and lows in professional skiing and his finding his way in the industry, riding a mix of skill and silliness that won people over worldwide.
In between the emotional beats — Shane alone on Christmas, awkward in a too-big sweater; his once-estranged dad, the former pro skier Jim McConkey, tearing up — are the reminders that McConkey was an entertainer. There he is in a backcountry meeting, working a banana in the dirtiest of ways. There he is skiing bumps, stark naked — after confirming that it would be caught on film.
McConkey's plethora of pre-existing clips reveals an eerie prescience about its hero, who always had a camera rolling, long before the days of GoPros, the cameras skiers bring with them on the slopes. For Gaffney, the biggest challenge in making the biopic was paring it all down, while re-living his shoots with star.
“I shed a lot of tears through this whole process,” Gaffney says. “I was angry at times, because I realized we wouldn't be able to make those memories anymore.
“But, I laughed far more than anything else.”
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