Counting the Punches

Kelly’s kindness and open personality breaks the language barrier while on a trip to Peru in 2013. For a professional mountain biker, months of travel is part of the job and can be quite stressful. For Kelly, it was just one of the many blessings the sport had given him—and that he never took for granted. Photo: Justin Olsen

Counting the Punches - Absolute Love with Kelly McGarry

For everyone here in the Northern Hemisphere, I think Kelly’s passing hasn’t set in yet.

This is the time of year when he is home in New Zealand with his girl Sammy and dog Tui, shredding all the amazing trails around Queenstown, and as he would say, “Punching life in the throat.” And by that he meant he was having the best time ever.

But there were also times when Kelly would dejectedly say, “Sometimes life punches back.” It punched during his 2015 crash at the Red Bull Sky Gate race in China. It punched again when he completely destroyed a DH rig during his infamous 100-foot backflip blowup at the 2014 Red Bull Rampage in Virgin, UT. Kelly survived it all, proving himself to be one of the toughest men on Earth, even if it was a title he didn’t want.

In the end, however, life always wins, and during a trail ride on Feb. 1, it threw the final blow in their epic boxing match. But, like Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier’s famous 1975 bout, I think if you counted the punches, Kelly absolutely annihilated his 33 years in that ring.

Conversations with Kelly almost always involved plenty of laughter—he had an ability to get people smiling that made him fun to be around. Kelly and longtime friend and teammate Eric Porter share beers along Utah’s Green River, the good times in full effect. Photo: Haruki Noguchi

The good times he and I had over the years are beyond measure, and it was like that with everyone he was around, wherever he went. From the highs of riding a big jump line with his friends to the lows of sitting in a hospital after a hard crash, Kelly always kept a humorous and positive attitude toward life.

Despite the boxing analogy, Kelly wasn’t one for fighting. His main source of happiness came from making sure everyone around him was happy, and his dedication to his friends was unwavering. He would call us out of the blue just to say hi and check in. When we talked or emailed, he would always ask, “How’s the missus? How’re the kids?” He avoided conflict as much as possible, refraining from making political statements or taking a hard stand in an argument to avoid turning off those around him. When it came down to it, Kelly just wanted everyone to get along and have a good time.

Kelly had close friends around the world, and as crazy as it sounded (mostly to him), millions of fans. He would never say it, but Kelly was, without a doubt, the best freeride mountain biker to ever come out of New Zealand. He loved his fans, although never really got used to having them, and always did his best to stoke them out. For Kelly, it just felt like the right thing to do. He owed part of his success to them.

It was easy for people to make the assumption that the towering Kiwi was killing it as a professional rider—and they were right. But few understood how hard he had to fight for everything, how rough it could despite his talent. With his performance at the 2013 Rampage, and the resulting viral YouTube video, he finally saw doors open for him and got the global respect he deserved. It’s funny how life can work; by ending up in second place instead of winning, he kept his underdog status, and, honestly, just to be on the podium and put down his dream run was enough for him.

Kelly spent years earning respect on the professional mountain bike scene, but the greater world didn’t see the full extent of his skill until 2013, when he stomped a backflip over a 72-foot canyon gap. The resulting POV footage went viral, garnering nearly 30 million views on YouTube. Though he finished second in the competition, that run was definitely a tipping point in his career. Photo: Paris Gore
Photographer Camilla Rutherford says Kelly McGarry was one of the first people to welcome her into the biking world—not surprising, considering his generally welcoming disposition. Queenstown, NZ was one of Kelly’s favorite riding locations, and as it is only a short distance from Camilla’s home in Wanaka, the two ended up doing a lot of shooting together, like this dusty line in nearby Central Otego. Photo: Camilla Rutherford

I think my best memories of Kelly are things I can’t really write about, whether they were the dumb, politically incorrect jokes or the inside jokes and stories that don’t translate beyond actually experiencing them. The things you can’t recall when asked, but that make up a person and a friendship. If you asked him if he wanted a beer, he’d say, “Does Dolly Parton sleep on her back?” If he did something of questionable intelligence, like the time he put a disc brake rotor on with my impact driver, he might say, “I ain’t too smart, but I can lift heavy stuff!”

I’ve been trying my best to write down all of his sayings and our conversations, but I’ve realized it’s impossible. There were the road-trip sessions of 90s punk, the accompanying sing-alongs to NOFX, Pennywise, Rancid, Propaghandi, Good Riddance, and more. There were jokes about being old and washed up because we’re in our 30s, jokes about my hairline, jokes about his life being a whirlwind of nonstop travel living out of his suitcase, which we dubbed “Jabba the Bag,” due to its size and shape. I remember Kelly saying if you don’t have friends to give you shit, you can end up blindly cruising down the wrong path. For instance, if you started listening to dubstep and no one was there to make fun of you, who knows where you’d end up?

By the 2013 Rampage, Kelly had been chasing the pro mountain biker dream for more than seven years, and after all his expenses, wasn’t doing much more than breaking even. It was stressful, exhausting and demoralizing at times, but he did it anyway because he believed in it, and, despite the difficulties, he was living the dream. Sometimes he talked about how much easier it would be to move back to NZ and be a “chippy” (carpenter), earn a regular paycheck, have time off and no stress, be able to settle down and have a family. It’s a thought all athletes have eventually.

But after talking it through, we always came back to the fact that anyone can get a regular job, but what we have is special. There is always pressure to go bigger, to stay in the spotlight and on podiums, to answer endless emails. It was always worth it though, because mountain biking gave him the opportunity to see places and do things few others would, which he was eternally grateful for and appreciative of those who made it possible. He absolutely loved what he did for a living.

It’s all about multitasking. Beer in hand, Kelly keeps the good times rolling and the jumps in shape during a trip to Peru in 2013. He had the natural ability to style all types of terrain, be it dirt jumps in South America, steep spines in Virgin, UT, or on an urban DH course in the streets of Mexico. Photo: Justin Olsen
It’s not every day you get to share a fancy trail bike with kids in Peru, and Kelly sure wasn’t going to waste the opportunity. McGazza forever! Photo: Justin Olsen

My last conversation with Kelly was the Saturday before he passed. He had recently signed with sponsor YT Industries, and I called to ask him if he was aware that “YT” stands for “Young Talent.” “Shouldn’t you be on their ‘OW’ team, for ‘Old and Washed up?’” I asked. He chuckled and said, “You called me from the other side of the world just to talk shit?” before firing back with a couple of jokes about me that had us both laughing hard.

The whole world is going to miss you, Kelly. As his girlfriend Sammy says, we’re finding solace that you passed peacefully, on one of your favorite trails in one of the most beautiful spots in the world. It just happened 60 years too early. You always took care of everyone around you, and we will do our best to take care of your family and friends in return. We will try to live the way you did, to punch life in the throat, to make each other laugh, and to always chase the good times.

From all of us, “MCGAZZA FOREVER!”

Counting the Punches, as seen in Freehub Magazine Issue 7.1