Sherry McConkey remembers a conversation she had with her husband, Shane. It was one of those giddy moments in a relationship, where the questions are quick and unrelenting and the thirst for details—no matter how tiny, no matter how silly—are of the utmost importance.
“When you die, what do you want to come back as?” Sherry asked. Shane’s answer was instantaneous.
“An eagle,” he said.
At that point, Sherry knew all that she needed to know about Shane McConkey. Because she wants to be reincarnated as an eagle, too.
The cold, hard truth is that in March 2009 Shane McConkey—an innovator in adventure sports, who pioneered the ultimate off-piste sport of ski-BASE jumping—died at the age of 39 when his skis failed to properly release during a wingsuit jump in the Dolomite Mountains in Italy. At 41 years old, Sherry was left a widow with a 3-year-old daughter.
Originally from South Africa, Sherry is a petite, sinewy force: She lives in Squaw Valley and teaches rehabilitative yoga to athletes injured in ski accidents. Her given name is Scheherazade, a nod to her Persian heritage, and in honor of the famed storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights. She wears a necklace with several pendants—one is Shane’s ring, and another is imprinted with a quote attributed to Leonardo da Vinci: “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
For Sherry, the four years since her husband’s death have been a dark, turbulent blur, with two major moments of clarity: One, that she needs to corral her grief in order to set an example for her daughter, Ayla. And two, despite her husband’s high-risk career, she had to prove Shane’s unquestionable love for his family.
THE RED BULLETIN: How difficult is it for you to have a documentary come out about Shane?
SHERRY MCCONKEY: It’s been hard for me this whole time, but I know deep down inside that it’s what I want, it’s what Shane would want, and I want Ayla to have something really incredible. I knew it would take a long time and I knew it would be really trying and hard and emotional. I’m not moving on. I haven’t moved on. And it’s because it’s in my face all the time and it’s a constant reminder. But it’s not a bad thing. I’m always going to remember him whether I like it or not.
When Shane first died, I got a lot of negative remarks, comments online, like: “How could he be a good father? How could he love you if he went out and did this kind of stuff?” You just sit and spew about it in your brain. There is no way somebody is going to walk away [from the film] and say that that man wasn’t a loving father and an incredible husband.
Has Ayla seen the movie?
She’s watched her segments and our wedding; she wrinkles her nose in delight and I’m behind her just like [mimics sobbing]. That was hard for her, and it’s really hard for me to cry in front of Ayla. You know, we’re attached. We had an umbilical cord. And you remember when you saw your parents cry, you freak out. It’s awful—they don’t cry, and when they do, it’s something big. But my friend said sometimes it’s good for her to see that emotion of how I love Shane. So when she saw the movie, I told her, “I have to tell you, I’m going to cry, because it’s really hard for me. I miss Daddy.” You could see it was upsetting to her, but she got it. And right after her scene, it goes to Italy, and she was like: “Are they going to show Daddy dying?” And, of course, they don’t. But it’s wrenching nonetheless to see the buildup to the final jump.
It was a big conversation. I was petrified they were going to show it, and it was not necessary. But it was totally handled appropriately. For me, I would have rather not seen the exit [of the jump] because that was his last moments, and it’s not fun to see him. I’m his wife, and obviously I’m going to hate it. If everyone in the world thinks it’s fine, I’m still going to hate it. But it’s beautiful, the scenery, and this is what he did. His last moment was a double flip. I trusted the directors, if they thought it was necessary, but they were going to stop it where I wanted to stop. And they listened to me.
What was the premiere like at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year?
Going to New York, I had this anxiety—more than I ever had in my life. It was like I was going to a wedding and funeral at the same time. I was excited because part of me was going to move on, but it’s also a chapter that’s going to close. And I was so nervous for people to perceive Shane the way we wanted them to perceive him.
I’d seen it several times, but I was super scared to watch it in front of people. I’d only watched it in front of a couple friends, and I would have to walk away. It was super hard. I had an escape route if I wanted to leave and I had my friends around me, and it was just ... rad. I looked around at one point and I was obviously crying—and everybody was. It was like, “Oh. Duh. Everyone is going to cry at this part, because it’s hard, and it’s beautiful.”
The movie is going to go on tour and be screened around the U.S. Are you going to go to any of the tour stops?
I’m not sure how many times I can watch the movie. I’m very excited for Squaw. It’s my family here and they are so excited to see it, and they’ve been so unbelievably supportive over the last years. I’d also like to see it in a city, and not a sports town like here. There was a woman who stood up in New York and said, “Now I’m going to live my life.” That’s what we wanted. This incredible man was so funny and dorky, and he didn’t care what people thought. It wasn’t even the fact that he was a crazy, amazing athlete—it was his personality that was so contagious.
How did you and Shane meet?
I’d seen him around town, but I didn’t know him. He was a skier, I was a snowboarder—different crowds. We started mountain biking together and then it was inevitable. We had so much fun together. He’s so fun. He was a dork and he made me laugh.
But he was famous. Was that weird?
He was never famous to me. I’d see his movies or see him on the slopes and be like, “Wow, that was amazing,” but he didn’t seem famous. He was humble—well, not humble, but he knew what he was capable of doing. It was his passion. He wasn’t cocky about it. It was what he loved to do, and naturally it just bubbled out of him. I think he’s more famous now.
One of my favorite moments in the film is when you do your first BASE jump.
The first one I did, I was so scared, but then it was amazing. I wanted to do it more, so I did it a couple more times. It’s one of those sports where you really want to be a good skydiver. You really want to be one of those quick athletes in your brain, where you figure out scenarios fast. I feel like you want to start when you’re young and you have more balls. I started when I was 35, which is really old. And then I went to skydiving and I got a little more comfortable with it—and then I got knocked up. [Laughs.] And now I can’t do it. No way.
After Shane’s death, why did you start the Shane McConkey Foundation?
At first I just did it to hold something on the anniversary [of his death]. I felt a lot of pressure—people were looking at me: “What are you going to do?” And it was an opportunity to raise money and awareness. We did one of these wacky things he liked to do—taking the mickey out of snowblading and acting like a dork and not taking life so seriously. It’s a competition, a downhill on snowblades, which is ridiculous, and everybody dresses up. Like belly dancers, or whores, or both. [Laughs.] We do a gala; it’s super fun. [With the proceeds] we’ve started [educational] Green Teams in the schools here, and I want to do more environmentally conscious events.
It sounds like a lot of work.
It’s a full-time nonpaying job. [Laughs.] For me, it’s prolonged not moving on, but I don’t think I’ll ever move on. And why should I? I loved him. He was my soulmate. I want Ayla to see that both her dad and her mom were passionate about this world, and I’ll continue trying to do as much as I can. I know it’s for some reason, through Shane. He gave me so much. And it wasn’t only love and a soulmate—he gave me the courage to do things I would have never done in my life.
What have you learned about grief?
The only way I’ve gotten through all this grief is obviously Ayla; I want to be a strong mother and I want to show her that her dad gave me the courage to do the things I needed to do. And exercise. If I didn’t have my mountain bike, I don’t know what I’d do. That’s where I can go and get all my anger out or be alone for hours and see how beautiful this world is. I don’t have Shane to get pissed off at any more [laughs], so I get to beat it out on a mountain bike ride.
Do you visit Shane’s memorial at the top of Squaw Valley often?
Squaw gave him Eagle’s Nest [renaming the challenging ski run in his honor], and it was so appropriate. We had this connection with eagles—we discussed, “When you die, what do you want to come back as?” And we both said, “Eagles, duh.” You get to soar, you get to fly. And it couldn’t be a more appropriate tribute to Shane. The most beautiful view, looking down on one of his favorite mountains in the world. I’ve gotten pictures of a golden eagle up there sitting right next to the eagle. I went up there on Shane’s birthday, there was one flying. I went up there on his anniversary, and there were golden eagles flying. It’s so weird. I don’t know—I’d never seen an eagle up there before. And now I see them all the time.
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