An avid world traveler, Sherry McConkey was born in Ireland, raised in South Africa, and began her global journey in 1989. After traveling through Europe and Canada, she landed in Lake Tahoe, CA, which she still calls home.
A passion for the outdoors connected Sherry to legendary free ski pioneer Shane McConkey. The two were married in Thailand in 2004 and their greatest creation, Ayla, came along in 2005. Shane passed away in 2009.
Through both her life with Shane, and his death, Sherry has come to believe that with desire, passion, and a goal, anything is possible. Despite the grief after losing him, Sherry knew she wanted to carry on Shane’s legacy. She turned moments of sadness into inspiration and used the power of positivity to build The Shane McConkey Foundation, and Executive Produce the movie, McConkey.
Interview by Brian Peech
Welcome to MULTIPLICITY.
Thank you. I’m actually really nervous about it. I’ve been asked to do Ted Talks that I’ve turned down. It’s just not me. I give Shane the bird all the time because I keep getting put into these situations. But it’s great in so many ways, for Ayla, for me and for the Foundation. But yes, it’s scary, every time I get in front of a bunch of people to talk, I’m shaking like a jackhammer.
If it makes you feel any better, our mountain community is very welcoming. What will you be talking about?
The main part of my talk is Shane, obviously. Just how real and positive he was. And then it goes into making the movie, McConkey, and talking about what that’s not only done for me, but for thousands of people around the world. Shane was just so incredibly real and authentic, he managed to accomplish so many things he wanted to do in life. He just went for his goals, and never believed that he couldn’t do it. He just kept trying until he did it.
What is it about Shane that still resonates with the mountain community?
I think he was just so real, and dorky. He was who he was, and he wasn’t going to change for anybody. Because he was kind of a dork and a misfit, people just loved him and related to him. It’s so refreshing to be around somebody who makes you realize it’s so much better to just be yourself and be authentic. Everybody’s kind of a dork in some way, but everyone’s also trying to filter themselves in life. But the more vulnerable, the more you show people who you really are, the more people like you and can relate to you.
The tough part for me here is how to make this interview about you. How does it feel to be so linked to Shane’s legacy? Being seen as Shane’s wife—or in the eyes of people who don’t know Shane’s legacy—the wife of that guy who died BASE jumping? Do you ever feel a loss of self, like, where’s Sherry?
It’s a good question. I’ve had moments of, like, yeah, I’m Shane’s wife, and I’m continuing his legacy in the shadows. But then there are times that I don’t think that at all, because what I’m doing today has nothing to do with Shane being a famous skier. It’s more about what I’m passionate about, as well as carrying on his legacy. Part of me wants to say, “I’m not Shane; I’m Sherry.” And it’s interesting, because in Squaw, it is Shane—everything is about Shane. But it’s also now becoming Ayla and I. I’m not embarrassed to be in Shane’s shadow; I’m proud. He’s given me a pedestal to continue his legacy with things he would have cared about. It’s given me so much opportunity to do good in the world, that it doesn’t bother me that I’m doing it through his name. The Foundation is not only Shane; it’s me. I’m doing stuff that I love and feel passionate about. It’s been a huge learning experience, and so many great things have come out of it. Like teaching Ayla about the environment and our world, and how hard I’ve worked in the last few years to grow the Foundation into what I really want it to be. The paybacks have been incredible, not in money, but in the experiences we’re having together.
“I’ve had moments of, like, yeah, I’m Shane’s wife, and I’m continuing his legacy in the shadows. But then there are times that I don’t think that at all, because what I’m doing today has nothing to do with Shane being a famous skier. I’m doing stuff that I love and feel passionate about.”
What sort of causes is the Foundation involved in?
The baby that I’m so passionate about is the Shane McConkey Eco Challenge. It’s a nation-wide competition within schools. Kids have to do something environmental for their schools. The winners receive a $6,000 award for their schools, and the other $4,000 goes to second and third places. It’s growing every year. It’s really incredible to see kids saying, “Wow, it’s cool to be environmental.” It’s this lovely little circle of love for the earth and to continue Shane’s legacy.
You helped produce the McConkey documentary; it must have been tough to go through all the footage, and watch the movie over and over at premieres?
Oh, yes. I talk about this in my presentation. Between Red Bull approaching me, talking with Scott Gaffney and MSP Films about it, it was all of us deciding to make the movie. At the time—it hadn’t even been a year after Shane dying—I didn’t realize how crazy I was. I’d just lost someone I’d loved so much. Not until a couple years later do you realize how crazy you were. I don’t think at the time I knew what I was getting myself into, but I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do. Of course I had anxiety that people were going to criticize me for making this movie. There were a million different insecurities going through my brain. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, for sure, but it was the best thing I’ve ever done in so many ways.
In making the movie, did find out anything about Shane you hadn’t expected?
For me to see Shane in a different way that I hadn’t seen before, was so good. The editor was from New York, and wasn’t involved in skiing in any way. He put together a lot of the movie with Scott Gaffney and saw a side of Shane that none of us really pulled out. It was really cool for me to watch that. I knew Shane battled in school, but he was so gifted and funny that it seemed like everything came so easy for him. But it really didn’t. I think the movie really brought that out about Shane. And the film snowballed into so many things, like me believing in myself, the Foundation, and for Ayla seeing how incredible her dad was.
“He hasn’t inspired people to be BASE jumpers or amazing athletes; he’s inspired people to really find their passions, be true to themselves and discover what they really want to do in life.”
Did you expect the reaction the film received?
The greatest thing is, to this day, I still get emails, Instagram messages, Facebook messages, almost on a daily basis from people all over the world about Shane. And I cry all the time out of pride and joy about what Shane has brought to the world. It’s great, because he hasn’t inspired people to be BASE jumpers or amazing athletes; he’s inspired people to really find their passions, be true to themselves and discover what they really want to do in life.
It’s been about eight years since Shane’s passing. How have you evolved as a person since?
I have grown so much. There’s just so much to get into with that. I grew up in such a different world of never believing in myself, traveling the world to figure myself out. If I ever write a book it will be about the last Valentine’s letter Shane gave me. To me, that was one of the most amazing letters I’ve gotten in my life, because it was about how he looked at me, and how he thought about me. And it really helps me. Every time I get sad, I read that letter and start believing in myself—that I can do it, and that I can make it. I have done things that I would never have done because of Shane. I get scared sometimes that I’m still with Shane and not moving on, but I don’t think so anymore. I’m going to be sad whether I like it or not. I lost the love of my life.
What’s the biggest misconception about Shane?
That he was just an adrenaline junkie. To me, he was a pioneer in sports. His dream was to fly, and he wound up making it happen. His dream was to change skiing, and he made it happen. He had dreams and he had goals, and he wanted to do them, no matter what. One of Shane’s teachers once asked him if he had six months to live what would he do? He listed off everything he went on to do in life. And that’s pretty amazing. So making him sound like an adrenaline junkie just isn’t right. Shane wanted things in life, and he would give the bird to anyone who told him he couldn’t do it.
“One of Shane’s teachers once asked him if he had six months to live what would he do? He listed off everything he went on to do in life. And that’s pretty amazing. So making him sound like an adrenaline junkie just isn’t right.”
I’m sure you get this a lot, but whenever there’s a death of a family man or woman in the mountains from doing something inherently dangerous, there’s an overwhelming outcry of, “How could he risk it when he has a family?” How do you deal with that?
It’s such a personal question. I could sit here and criticize people for asking the “how could he?” question—there are so many answers. Yes, this guy may be risking his life, and why does he do that? It’s such a hard question to answer. There’s just no way in my life—and I know other girls who have lost their husbands—that we could ever say, “You can not do that.” There are just so many ways to die. I did a Ted Talk last year, and some people said some really mean things. And when Shane died, a lot of people were saying some really mean things about that. And I could get defensive and argue against it, but because they don’t understand who Shane was, or who Eric Roner was, or all these people who have passed away—they don’t understand the lifestyle. You can’t criticize someone when you don’t understand the lifestyle. We don’t understand a lifestyle where people can sit in an office and behind on a computer all day—it’s not my passion, but I respect it if it’s theirs.
It’s got to be a challenging thing to hear or defend.
I don’t think these guys are going out and risking their lives; I think they’re going out and doing what they truly want to do in their hearts. They don’t want to die. Shane didn’t want to die. I know Shane was scared to die, and he knew he could die. But we can all die; it’s just part of life. Sure, he had a higher risk of dying than most people, but it would be killing him in another way if I told him to stop doing what he loved to do.
“There’s just no way in my life—and I know other girls who have lost their husbands—that we could ever say, ‘You can not do that.’ It would be killing him in another way if I told him to stop doing what he loved to do.”
Do you see Shane in Ayla in any way?
She is absolutely a dork like him in so many ways. She’s super funny. She’s got so much empathy towards so many things. Athletically, I’m not seeing that yet, but she could be a late bloomer. I was a late bloomer, and so was Shane. She skis, and has fun in life, but I’m not pushing her to be some crazy skier. I want her to find her own passions and be herself. But she’s a delight—just the coolest, most fun kid I’ve ever met. Of course, she’s mine, so I say that, but you can see Shane in her for sure. Every now and then, I’m like, “Whoa, that was Shane.”
“She is absolutely a dork like him in so many ways. She’s super funny. She’s got so much empathy towards so many things. You can see Shane in her for sure. Every now and then, I’m like, ‘Whoa, that was Shane.'”
Having been through so much, how do you keep positive?
I don’t always keep a positive attitude. Believe you me. When Eric [Roner] died, I’d never been so angry in my life. I lost it. I thought, “That’s it. I’m moving out of Tahoe, I can’t stand this anymore. It’s too much to handle.” But I had a wake-up call. I was on my bike, and I realized what I have, and who I have around me. I have Ayla, and this beautiful world around me—I really have an incredible life. I live in Tahoe, I ski, I snowboard, I mountain bike, I work hard and I get a lot back in so many ways. I have nothing to complain about. This is life, and we’re all going to die. We’ve had so many people die in Tahoe that sometimes I worry that my heart is getting colder, or stone-like, but I really don’t think it is. I’ve just learned to accept where we live and what our lifestyle is. What else are we going to do? We can’t go down, we just have to go ahead and be strong and try to see the beauty around all the bad. But I definitely have my days where I wake up, like, “Ugh, I can’t handle this.” But then you have a beautiful thing happen.
“We’ve had so many people die in Tahoe that sometimes I worry that my heart is getting colder, or stone-like, but I really don’t think it is. I’ve just learned to accept where we live and what our lifestyle is. What else are we going to do? We can’t go down; we just have to go ahead and be strong and try to see the beauty around all the bad.”
What are the most important things you learned from Shane?
The most important thing I learned from Shane is that he never tried to hide who he was, where he came from or what he was, or wasn’t, good at. He was just who he was. It’s so refreshing. When I was younger, I was too embarrassed to tell people about what I wasn’t good at, but Shane was always good at openly saying, “Oh, yeah, I’m awful at that.” He was just OK with it, because he knew he was good at so many other things. It’s taught me to just admit who I am.
What do you hope the audience takes away from your presentation?
Live life to the fullest and go for your dreams. It’s just another version of who Shane was and why he did the things he did., and what he’s done for me and the rest of the world. And through tragedy, we can move on, we can be strong. This is life, and it’s beautiful.
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