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Risking Reward

Essays on loss, and what we can learn from Tahoe’s sports tragedies
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Lurking under the wow factor of the glamorous side of the ski and action sports world is the underbelly that things can and do go terribly wrong. The Tahoe community has been a raw witness to this fact, with a steady drumbeat of athletes lost. More than 10 in the last decade — from everyday skiers like Ben Brackett to the most globally celebrated names in action sports such as Erik Roner and Shane McConkey — have died young.

Absolute solutions seem fleeting, but the community is getting pro-active. There are initiatives like the recently formed Go Bigger Coalition, which aims to help parents and youth navigate our high-risk culture; the High Fives B.A.S.I.C.S. program, focused on helping the youth make smarter decisions; and SAFE AS clinics that promote backcountry safety.

But how do we hone in and perhaps restrict our actions in these sports that simultaneously give us joy as well as pain? Sherry McConkey, wife of the late Shane McConkey, pointedly summarizes the complexities: “We live in a community where people are passionate about inherently dangerous sports; for obvious reasons, I have come to dislike some of these sports, but I would never criticize people as I understand emotional connect for these athletes.”

Whether you are a parent, athlete, or participant in our high-risk, high-fun culture, we recommend at least adding the tenets of these essays to the discussion. We posed the question of “what can we do to decrease these tragedies” to six prominent local figures in the action sports community, who responded with the following candid thoughts. ~ Dave Zook/Moonshine Ink

Jaclyn Paaso, 34, is one of the winningest big mountain female skiers on the planet. She considers North Lake Tahoe home.

When I first started entering big mountain competitions in 2008 I didn’t really understand the situations I was putting myself in, and the full scope of the risks involved. As the years passed, I suffered the loss of good friends in the ski community, and the reality set in.

Not all of the tragedies are on the same level of risk that I can relate to, or at least that is how I feel. I suppose others may feel differently. But there was always a connection between the risks I was taking and some of the tragedies I was seeing. The idea of quitting entered my mind. I soon realized quitting was not the answer though, and my fallen friends would never want that. However, I do feel that they would want me to make careful decisions and be as prepared as possible in any situation. Nevertheless, life is never a sure bet, so the sidelines are not an option.

When I was competing at the 2015 Verbier Xtremes (the world’s premier big mountain contest), I was dealing with two recent knee injuries. Minutes before my run, the tour organizer had radioed the starter to inform me that all four of the women that skied my intended area had crashed badly. He knew of my current physical condition and warned me of the snow conditions. I decided to drop and make the call as I went. Skiing up to the area in question, I quickly determined that my chances of crashing and suffering a severe knee injury, or worse, were greater than my chances of success.

In front of the live cameras, audiences, and judges, I took off my skis and hiked out. I knew that no contest was worth knowingly putting myself in peril.

I believe the most important message we can teach each other is that there is never any shame in turning back. Your life and physical health will always be more important than any amount of money or recognition.

Robb Gaffney has skied Squaw Valley for more than 25 years and has appeared in more than 10 ski films. He obtained a master’s degree in psychiatry in 2003 and runs a practice in Tahoe City, where he lives. In 2012, he founded the website Sportgevity, with the mission statement: “Dedicated to making our sports lifelong passions,” and, in 2015, he helped found the Go Bigger Coalition.

Action sports have become increasingly risky, and what’s even riskier is that within the culture, the blind lead the blind. That might sound drastic, but it’s inherently true, as it is in many aspects of life. We need to take the blinders off if we want to shift course.

Most of what we do is driven by deeply complex factors that ultimately drive our behaviors. Yet, we cruise along each day, coming up with all kinds of ways to explain why we do what we do. These rationalizations usually look good, seem to make sense, and often do a great job of convincing others that our drives are fully conscious and calculated. The only problem is that rationalizations operate as veils that cover up the real drivers underneath.


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March 14, 2019