Sam Coffey remembered as personable, fun friend who just loved to ski
Sam Coffey needed only a couple of nights to become the talk of Wengen, Switzerland. As Wiley Maple’s ski technician on the World Cup this past winter, Coffey could stay out a little later than his best friend and his infectious personality soon won over the town, much like it did just about everywhere he went.
“Walking down the street to the bars, he knew everybody in the whole town,” Maple recalled Tuesday. “They are like, ‘Oh, Sam from Aspen! Come in here!’ So he’s introducing me to all these locals, and I’ve been going to this race for 10 years and I know like five people in the whole town and he’s met them all within the first week.”
That’s who Coffey was. Tall, charming and always wearing the biggest smile to match his iconic mustache, the Aspen native was as unique and as pure as they came. His passion for life is what his friends will remember the most, a passion he had the ability to pass on to everyone he met.
Coffey died Monday after suffering multiple strokes while vacationing near Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. He was 29.
“The outpouring of love is awesome and overwhelming and super beautiful,” said Aspen’s Baker Boyd on Tuesday from Cabo. Boyd was one of Coffey’s best friends and was there with him when he suffered his first stroke. “It’s kind of hard not to smile and laugh thinking about spending time with him, because he was seriously the best guy. Literally every moment I spent with that guy was the time of my life.”
Before Maple was an Olympian and before Coffey was an All-American at the University of New Hampshire, the boyhood best friends were energetic youths who lived for days on the mountain with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club. Boyd moved to town when he was 12 and from that point on those three would become nearly inseparable.
As endearing as they were, they also had a tendency to push boundaries. Alice Black, AVSC’s current Alpine director, remembers being with the boys at ski races in Telluride when they were around 16. Maple, who happens to be a talented artist, and Coffey took it upon themselves to draw a little picture in the snow one day.
“There was a very large depiction of male genitalia on the field. It’s like a football-sized field, and the thing is taking over the whole field,” Black said. “So the next morning we got on the lift and I look back to see if they’ve actually taken care of it. … They had turned it into a beautiful elephant, which must have taken them a good chunk of the evening. That’s just kind of the sense of humor the kids had.”
Pat Callahan, a longtime AVSC coach and Aspen ski-racing fixture, said Coffey was the leader of the group. Always happy, always smiling, Coffey also had this coolness about him that, as Callahan said, made all the girls want to be with him and all the boys want to be him. Very little changed when he got to adulthood.
“He could make anybody in the room feel the like most important person there. His eyes would light up whenever he saw any friend or anybody he knew,” Callahan said. “Talent-wise, he was unbelievable. He should have been on the U.S. Ski Team. They made a big mistake not picking him up, because he was right there with Wiley, same level.”
LIFE ON THE WORLD CUP
Coffey had a successful college ski career at New Hampshire, although he had to watch as Maple went on to make the World Cup and eventually earned a spot in the 2018 Olympic downhill. Not fully embracing office life and trying to overcome the loss of his father, Snowmass icon Joe Coffey, who died in January 2018, Coffey decided to do what he does best and embrace adventure.
He spent most of last summer as a raft guide, briefly moved to Chamonix, France, and eventually took up Maple’s offer to become his ski technician on the World Cup.
“He ultimately made the decision that his time was more valuable than making money in an office, which was a very mature decision, I think, and just kind of set himself free,” Maple said. “Sam always wanted to be a ski racer more than I did. From the first time I started ski racing, I don’t remember enjoying it until I was like 15 or something. But Sam always had the nicest stuff, the best equipment and put in the most time. It was basically a dream come true to bring him on tour with me for the first time.”
Coffey had no trouble fitting in. While Maple isn’t officially on the U.S. Ski Team, he spends a lot of time around them on the World Cup circuit, and it didn’t take long before they embraced Coffey as one of their own.
“For those guys to have the opportunity to share the world stage for a year together and support each other and try to help each other was pretty special,” said Aspen’s Johno McBride, a longtime coach on the World Cup and at the AVSC. “Sam definitely fits in wherever he goes. He can be the life of the party and he was a great guy to be around. People were drawn to him. He had a great energy about him. Always a smile on his face.”
TRAGEDY IN PARADISE
Maple was recently with Coffey for a few days in Punta Mita, Mexico, near Puerto Vallarta. After Maple returned stateside, Coffey joined up with Boyd and George Rodney, another accomplished Aspen skier and close friend, in Cabo.
After a couple of fun days messing around and enjoying life, it all went wrong. Around noon on Tuesday, May 14, Coffey suffered what they would later find out was a stroke and was quickly taken to a local hospital.
“By the time we left the hospital, and really from 10 until midnight, you wouldn’t expect that Sam had a stroke,” Boyd said. “He was fully with it and completely himself.”
Coffey remained in intensive care that night as a precaution and seemed to be doing fine. But his brain began to swell Thursday morning, leading to two surgeries and more strokes that night. He died early Monday afternoon.
Boyd said they believe the strokes were caused by a blood disorder Coffey wasn’t aware he had, something likely passed down from his father. This, however, can’t be confirmed until the medical tests are finalized.
While Boyd was in Cabo with Coffey, where he was eventually joined by Coffey’s mother, Cathy, and sister, JoAnna, Maple was helping teach children at the American Downhiller camp in Mammoth, California. He wanted to return to Mexico to be with Coffey, but agreed with Boyd that it would do no good.
“Baker and I decided that I should keep doing what I’m doing and not come sit around in hospitals waiting for bad news. Kept coaching the kids and skiing,” Maple said from Mammoth, where he remained Tuesday. “This is what Sam would want, to continue to ski and pass on the love for skiing to the next generation. It’s a healthy distraction to be here and have to focus on the kids, but it’s definitely hard. It hits me in waves. Some moments I’m fine-ish, and almost happy and accepting of the circumstances, and other moments I’m barely holding it together.”
Due to political red tape, it could take weeks before Coffey’s body is returned to the U.S. In the meantime, Aspen Skiing Co. and the Coffey family are planning a celebration of Sam Coffey’s life at 11 a.m. Monday on Aspen Mountain, which will be open for skiing. It will be near the top of the gondola.
“Sam is gone from us, but he’s in his dad’s arms. I’m sure Joe is relishing those moments,” Snowmass Village Mayor Markey Butler said. “It’s going to be a tough struggle for the family, but this community will surround Cathy and JoJo with tons of love and understanding and patience.”
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State department of transportation crews are well on their way to clearing Highway 82 to Independence Pass, which should open on schedule May 27 at noon.