When the ski racing family loses one of its own, it seems to touch all of us. I’ve always felt that way, and now I’m certain of it. In the last 48 hours since AJ Kitt delivered to me the grievous news about the loss of our dear friend and teammate Eric Keck, my phone has lit up. The sorrow, the memories, the stories are clogging the ether. So, I have a favor to ask of my ski family. Please keep them coming. Please fill the ether and pages below with your tales and memories. In his 52 years, he lived twice the life of most, and the stories, the epic tales, are too many for any one person to catalog. If you knew him at all, it shouldn’t be too hard. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my 25 years in skiing and another 20 covering it, there is no better way to launch a tale or get peoples’ attention than with the word: Keck.
Keck showed up as a Freshman at Burke Mountain Academy belly laughing. I was junior, and really, that’s about all I can remember. He needed laughter like he needed oxygen. I don’t recall any athletic or academic prowess, just joy. I could not possibly have foreseen ALL the things he would try, master, or become. Strike that. I could not have foreseen ANY of those things. Flash forward another five years, and we were teammates on the US Development Team. He was starting to approach full size, which if you’ve been following, was and remains unprecedented in alpine skiing. By the time he and I were dabbling in World Cup downhill, he weighed 255 pounds and was growing. Not a bumbling 255, but the guy you could beat out of the blocks running the 40-yard dash only to find yourself in his jet wash 20 yards later. He performed unusual feats of inhuman strength as a matter of course, like grabbing the seat of a bike with one hand and rotating it 90 degrees upward to “check the swing weight.” If the hotel key was somehow lost, it was odd how easily the door would just … come off the hinges. His strength was otherworldly. His character was bigger still.
Though the record books will never show it, for a US skier in our era, Eric Keck was our celebrity. Just the sight of him drew stares in Europe. His seminal moment is a story that has been passed on through the generations. Keck and I were called up from a rained-out Europa Cup to the hallowed and largely snowless grounds of Kitzbuehel. Weather and travel had kept us off snow since our last race two weeks earlier in Big Mountain, Montana — not exactly the ideal bullpen for Kitz. I was scared because that was the human thing to be. By inspection, which meant skipping down a brownish staircase of ice, I was not just scared, I was out. I needed at least a day of skiing. That idea never occurred to Keck. He was so pumped. I sheepishly took a position below the Mausefalle.
Keck was in the snow seed, a group of skiers selected from the back of the field to go before the first seed to, paradoxically, clear any loose snow. The forerunners and first few from the snow seed plunked off the Mausefalle at introductory speeds. When Keck came into view, he was 15 feet off the deck doing double their pace. The sight was awesome until I could see he was descending on the wrong side of the red slat fence where, again, there was but a smattering of snow and a labyrinth of trees. I saw head, feet, head, feet as the sound of human pachinko echoed my way. It looked, frankly, deadly. By the time I collected myself to run the 150 yards to get to him, he’d apparently gotten some brief medical treatment. Upon my arrival, he bolted upright pumping a broken ski over his head and with two bloodied gauze pads unfurling from his nostrils. He then gave a thunderous war cry. I was later told that the antics in the start were equally Keck, snorting and hooting as he dwarfed the otherwise titans of our time such as Daniel Maher and Michael Mair. Ask them, they remember. No one had gone over that fence in 50 years of racing until that day, though AJ Kitt almost did and Bill Hudson definitely did. It was a memorable day for the Americans commemorated the following year with an erection of an actual suspension A-net, unofficially named: The Keck Catcher.
He was a monster of a human being and never failed to live up to our expectations of his largess. But, for me, the real marvel of Keck was his ability to defy all expectations.
There came a time when he confided in me that he was conflicted about the selfish nature of an individual sport like skiing, or so he felt. He wanted something more, something else, to move on. For all the joking, bravado, cajoling and showmanship, there was an exceedingly contemplative person at the helm. He’d also met a woman who had captured his heart. And like that, he was off on the next episode of his life, and there were many.
That was almost 30 years ago, and in the interim Eric Keck became a renaissance man like no one I’ve ever known. Our coach at the time, Bill Egan, had once been a football coach at Saddleback college on the California coast. Egan got him a look from the football staff there. They liked what they saw. So between bouts of surfing, and breaking oversized boards, he started pounding junior college players into submission. Keck was now full-sized, approaching 300 pounds. I could be getting the timeline wrong here, but the next time I saw him, he was driving east with his wife, Beth, and first daughter, Zion. He showed up at my house with a truck packed like the Clampets on their way to Beverly, Zion cradled like a football. He’d been recruited by Columbia University. I did not see that coming. He led them to their first winning season in, forever, becoming something of an icon there — the giant Christian. At some point, he became a minister all the while living in cramped apartment in NYC. He was starting to get recruited by the big money folk on Wall Street. Not his style. I recall he and his family joining us on a river trip on the Green in Utah. We were sitting by a campfire when now four-year-old Zion let out a blood-curdling scream from a nearby tent. He leaped over the fire to her rescue. “Uh, it’s just a butterfly, honey.” He returned to the fire and said, “We gotta get out of the city.”
I think it was Idaho next, but I had a hard time keeping track. I just remember that it turned out he could build hot rods and be completely indoctrinated by the ilk who did that sort of thing in northern Idaho while, in the same breath, working with underprivileged families of the inner city. He was both master and menace with all things mechanical. He learned it from his father, a shop teacher, and likely from all the things he broke along his highly destructive and experimental path. At some point, he was drawn back to live in the very home where he grew up in Montpelier, Vermont. There he somehow landed a job as Dean of Admission for the esteemed New England Culinary Institute. The man could eat, but Dean of Admissions? I don’t know of any experience he had to prepare for that, but Eric Keck had a way of convincing anyone he could do anything. And in time, he could.
Understand, I’m just skimming the surface. There are countless other wild-haired tangents to his life, all while remaining the consummate family man to his wife, four kids, and two grandchildren. It wasn’t until his passing that I learned he’d become a policeman in his spare time while working as the principal of Southwick School in Northfield, New Hampshire. During the training, he schooled all the recruits half his age. He was a physical specimen to the very end, but his greatest strength was to lift and inspire everyone and anyone with whom he came in contact. Unbridled, ever-evolving, he left us with so much to admire and so many yarns to spin that I want to keep writing and writing and reminding everyone and myself what an incomparable human being we have lost. But I’ll let you all take it over from here. Let me get you started. Keck!
Have a memory of Eric Keck? Comment below or send a letter to the editor.
There will be a community wide gathering this coming Sunday, July 19 at 5 p.m. at Highland Mountain Bike Park. The address can be found here. https://www.highlandmountain.com/
In lieu of flowers, a fund for local kids to get to go mountain biking at Highland is in the process of being set up. Further details to follow.