Ski-BASE Pioneer’s Wife Sherry McConkey on Danger, Loss, Parenthood

Sherry McConkey has spent the better part of the last year touring the world with a biopic of her husband, the professional skier and pioneering wingsuiter Shane McConkey who died in a ski-BASE jumping accident in 2009.  The movie, which she co-produced, hopes to set the record straight about the life and legacy of her husband, and well as silence the critics who thought he lived too close to the edge. Adventure sat down with Sherry in San Sebastian before the European premier of McConkey to talk about danger, loss, and parenthood.

Adventure: If I ever lost a loved one, the last thing I would want to do would be to sit down with a journalist and talk about it. What motivated you to produce this movie and tour with it?

Sherry McConkey: In the beginning a lot of people criticized Shane, saying things like, “how could he love his wife and daughter and do the things that he did?” So for me, a huge part of this movie was to prove that he wasn’t that “adrenaline junky” that people were saying he was. He was an amazing husband and an amazing father and just a normal human being as well as an innovator of various sports.

A: Do you dislike the term “adrenaline junky”?

SM: It’s a stupid word. It sounds like a drug addict. These people are pioneers of their sport. They are pushing the limit, yes, but as they grow, they get better and therefore need to keep progressing.

A: Were you worried when Shane first started BASE jumping?

SM: No, it was so new then that nobody had died. The first person I knew who died was Frank Gambali, and he died running away from the cops. The next person was that woman who didn’t know her rig, so she was pulling on the wrong chord. But then, probably three years later, more people started dying, so I got a little more nervous. More people have started doing it, and now so many people are doing it. I think they need to be more aware of all the preparation involved–I mean, you need 100+ sky dives before you can even think about starting.

A: What is it like being the spouse of someone whose day job is inherently dangerous?

SM: I think we all fear the inevitable no matter what. Shane would speak about it sometimes and say, “Look, we need to speak about what’s going to happen if I die.” I didn’t want to hear it. It’s one of those things that no one wants to talk about. Even just before his death he wanted to sit me down and talk about what I would do if something happened to him, but I wouldn’t hear of it.

A: Do you wish now that you had talked about it more?

SM: No, not necessarily because you figure it out. We did speak about things like, if we died what we would want to come back as. I know he certainly had a fear of not being there for our daughter Ayla, but it was super hard to talk about. So we did touch on it some, but it was just hard.

A: What were Shane’s views on death?

SM: He didn’t think he was going to die. I think he thought he was always so cautious and prepared … he was so meticulous about everything he did that I don’t think he thought he would die.

A: What do you think is the biggest misconception of Shane?

SM: If people see him only in the movies, they see him just jumping off things and being a goofball and being crazy. They don’t see how long he sat on his computer preparing for his jumps or researching the cliffs he was going to do or throwing rocks off cliffs and counting. I mean, he would spend hours at cliffs. It was so frustrating going with him sometimes–it was like “jump already!” You know? It would take hours for him to do it. You don’t film that. You don’t show that part. I think a lot of the people who are seeing this on TV don’t get that because they have never done anything of this sort in their lives. It’s very difficult to understand.

A: Should media portray more?

SM: Yes! I feel like there are movies showing some of that, but these guys put in so much time, through seminars and in the field, it’s just incredible. I mean before Shane would go on a BASE jump, he would go skydiving down in Lodi when it was 110 degrees outside—not because he wanted to, but because he was going wingsuiting and he knew he had to practice jumping out of airplanes for hours before hand.

A: Is it hard to schedule your life if your spouse keeps very irregular hours?

SM: It was hard. But I was a very independent girl who traveled the world by herself. So for me, being alone was important and his schedule was fine in the sense that I needed my alone time. When I had a kid it changed things a little bit, and suddenly I was an older mom with a full time job and looking after a kid. There were issues for sure, but nothing that we couldn’t get used to. And then, once we had Ayla, he didn’t want to leave, because he wanted to be with her as well. In the end we traveled a lot together.

A: How old is your daughter now?

SM: She’s seven.

A: Does she remember her father?

SM: She does because of all the things that have been going on over the last couple of years. I talk about him every day; she says good night to him every day. It’s a ritual because I never want her to forget him. But physically I don’t think she remembers anything about him because she was three when he died.

A: How do you give your daughter a connection with a father who is gone?

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SM: I talk to her a lot about what an amazing dad he was and try to tell her stories about things like when he would take her skiing, or come to certain things with her. Luckily, Shane filmed a lot of the time he spent with her. And the movie … the best thing for me about it is that Ayla has her dad in a movie.

I remember sitting down and having her watch the movie with me for the first time–it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I can’t watch the movie without crying, and I remember as a kid seeing my mom crying and how hard that was. But I took Ayla aside and said, “Mommy’s going to cry, it’s very hard for me, because I loved him so much.” So it was hard, but to see the delight in her eyes when she saw him on the screen was one of the most wonderful things I could have asked for.

A: What would you like to impart to Ayla that Shane would have given her?

SM: Shane always taught me to believe I could do anything I wanted to do. He struggled a lot in school and college was impossible for him, but he always persevered. My daughter has his sense of empathy and his whacky sense of humor, and I want her to believe in herself like he did.

A: What if that means she wants to follow in her father’s footsteps?

SM: I’m not going to stop her.

A: What’s it like having to re-watch this movie again and again in theatres full of people?

SM: Sometimes I feel like I’m ripping off a scab again and again because you don’t ever truly get over and move on from something like this. But when we premiered at Tribeca, I felt like I was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I was extremely nervous about how people would take it, and of course very emotional as well, but when I looked around the theatre I saw a lot of other people crying and I felt like I was enveloped in a blanket of love. I hope people can be touched by the film, and it would be a cherry on top if they were inspired as well.

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