Michelle Parker: Nothing Can Keep This Girl Down
FRESH OFF TWO KNEE SURGERIES, MICHELLE IS POISED TO GET BACK ON SNOW AND FINISH WHAT SHE STARTED.
BY: SCOTT GAFFNEY
I have Michelle Parker pinned to the table by her shoulders. Her green eyes are transfixed on the ceiling. Maybe even looking straight through it. Our physical therapist, Ladd, grasps Michelleâ€™s right ankle. Her repaired knee has already been bent to the limits of her pain threshold. Now heâ€™s about to push further. He pauses and suggests, â€œYou know, you could get a job at the coffee shop down the street, making lattes.â€
Through gritted teeth Michelle bluntly responds, â€œI have some unfinished business in skiing.â€
â€œAlright. Here we go,â€ Ladd says, his staid face mirroring Michelleâ€™s focus. He lifts her heel and pushes it a few more degrees towards her. Michelleâ€™s eyes clench and her body recoils and writhes beneath my weight as the scar tissue tenses, stretches and tears, and she cries out an F-bomb that turns every head in the facility. Moments later comes the release, and slowly Michelle returns to the real world. The other rehabbers resume their workouts while Michelle takes a moment to sit and massage her traumatized joint. Then she looks at me with glazed eyes and, cracking a hint of a smile, says, â€œWhoa. That was intense.â€ I realize Iâ€™ve just peered through a window into what makes Michelle Parker who she is.
Itâ€™s been a long, painful journey since she dropped a modest 15-foot cliff onto a submerged fang of rock in the British Columbia interior back in February, folding and destroying her right knee. The first of two surgeries involved suturing a torn medial patellofemoral ligament, repairing meniscus and using technique called micro fracture to stimulate cartilage repair. Six weeks of immobilization were followed by three months of marathon physical therapy sessions three days a week, all to get enough mobility to enable her second surgery, the wonderful ACL reconstruction, a procedure sheâ€™d already experienced two years prior on the same knee.
â€œAt the time I thought ACL was bad, and now I know it can be way worse. Itâ€™s been an interesting journey,â€ Michelle told me in between sips of soup in her parentsâ€™ Squaw home. â€œIf I worked an office job, I donâ€™t know what would be the biggest push behind me getting back on my feet. But definitely having different things that Iâ€™m passionate about that require me to have good knees or have a healthy body… I think that is what inspires me the most. And skiing obviously is the biggest one.
â€Michelle possesses extraordinary resilience and determination, but they are traits you might not see on the surface should you meet her. Sheâ€™s polite, considerate and admittedly shy until she gets to know someone. And physically, sheâ€™s certainly unassuming â€” the girl who sat next to you in class. Dirty blonde, petite and cute. Sure, she looks athletic in the right attire, but when sheâ€™s in full feminine mode, itâ€™s hard to imagine this girl launching cliffs, spinning big backcountry booters, slamming and charging up for more. But thatâ€™s exactly what sheâ€™s all about.
I remember the first moment I saw Michelle ski. I was riding the KT chair at Squaw five winters ago when a girl flashed right below, shredding chopped up powder with a style that immediately reminded me of Seth: low to the ground, angulated and graceful, yet seriously confident. I must have said, â€œWow,â€ as I turned to watch her speed away, because my buddy, JT Holmes, answered before I even had the chance to pose my next question. â€œThatâ€™s Michelle Parker,â€ he said.
I was already aware of Michelleâ€™s rise in the freestyle scene, but I had no idea she could actually ski in the backcountry. Really ski. She was just 16 or 17,but immediately I thought, â€œThis girlâ€™s the future.â€ A few runs later, after meeting up and introducing ourselves, I simply said, â€œFollow me.â€ I blazed down into some lines with Michelle in tow. It wasnâ€™t the gnarliest terrain, but we dove into the kind of blind little straight-runs and airs where if you didnâ€™t absolutely know your way, youâ€™d probably hesitate and scope things. I carried heat through each line â€” perhaps as a test â€” and each time I swept out the bottom Iâ€™d look over my shoulder to see Michelle right there, in the smoke from my tails, grinning.
I suppose it shouldnâ€™t have been that surprising. Michelle has lived and breathed Squaw Valley and skiing from the outset. She was born right down the road in Truckee and has spent the entirety of her 22 years living in the shadow of the iconic ski area. She got on skis at the age of one. â€œSkiing was my daycare,â€ she explained to me one day on yet another trip to physical therapy. â€œLooking back, it seems skiing was all that I knew. I took the bus from school straight to skiing.â€
Her ski career began to blossom in Squawâ€™s race program. â€œI was a pretty high level racer,â€ she recalls, having placed in the top three twice in the Junior Olympics. At the age of 11, she even won the Far West Cup, an overall title for a seasonâ€™s worth of top finishes in Slalom, GS and Super G. She garnered her first sponsorship, from Rossignol, for her racing prowess. But at that time, her coach â€” who had always encouraged freeskiing â€” left the team and was replaced by a couple of renowned former Olympians who applied a more regimented training program. Aware of Michelleâ€™s affinity for getting inverted and ripping around with a crew of guys who had less focus than their female counterparts, the coaches delivered an ultimatum: â€œNo front flips, no and her racing career was over. She started spending more time in Squawâ€™s terrain park. â€œIt was something that seemed natural to me. I kind of wanted to rebel a little bit against racing and the conformity and having to train. I thought, â€œWhat can I do that doesnâ€™t have coaches or a real set-in-stone direction of what you have to do every single day?â€ So that naturally put me into doing whatever I wanted to do and that was freeskiing. Then that kind of grew into skiing in the park.
â€œThe whole not-having-coaches thing and just feeding off of each other…Thatâ€™s how I feel our sport has gotten to where it is. I ski with all the guys and they teach me everything I need to know. If one guy has a weakness in one trick, then they tell each other. They coach each other. So that was kind of a natural progression for me.â€
When she was 15, she was spotted sliding rails by Line founder Jason Levinthal, who was neither the first nor last to mistakenly assume the baggy clothed little shredder was a guy with a ponytail. He gave her skis and convinced her to enter the US Open in Vail. â€œThey were by far the biggest jumps Iâ€™d ever seen,â€ Michelle remembers. â€œIâ€™d never even done a 360. My only tricks were front flips and rails. I hit the jump right by the judges tower and I heard Pep (Fujas) yelling, â€˜Grab your skis! Grab your skis!â€™ That event motivated me to go home and learn. What Sarah (Burke) was doing and everyone else opened my eyes.â€ The following year she returned to the US Open and â€” with several spins comprising her bag of tricks â€” podiumed in slopestyle and took6th in Pipe. And so Michelle Parker the park skier was born.
Michelle continued on the competitive circuit and consistently posted impressive results, winning everything from rail jams to slopestyles to halfpipe comps to big air events. She competed in the X Games and was twice invited to the Jon Olsson Invitational (of just three girls ever invited). In turn, she managed to attract sponsors who kept feeding the cycle, K2, Orage, Dakine, Scott, Skullcandy and more. When Michelle finished high school and decided to forgo college to pursue a ski career, her mother, Lou Anne, and father, Greg â€” a former pro tennis player who Michelle calls â€œextremely competitiveâ€ â€” were fully supportive.
They were Michelleâ€™s cheerleading section as she began filming with Poor Boyz for the movie Ski Porn in 2006. At a spring shoot at Northstar, Michelle really made her mark. â€œShe killed it,â€ recalls PBP founder Johnny Decesare. â€œShe woke everyone up. She made the guys ski better on that particular giant jump. Everyone was doing cool stuff, and Michelle came out and started blowing minds. She did a massive 540. Perfect style, grabbing, the whole shebang. And I think everyone was like, â€œHereâ€™s a new generation of girls.â€
Michelleâ€™s name slowly became prevalent; she was featured in ads, had big parts in several movies and appeared on one page of this magazine in a hot tub in a bikini, and on another page sliding a gnarly down-fl at-down urban rail spanning a cluster of boulders. But all along â€” as her name steadily blossomed based on her halfpipe, booter and rail skills â€” all I could think was, â€˜Just wait until people actually see her ski powder.â€™ As it turns out, all along Michelle was eager to show the world the exact same thing.â€œ
â€œLooking back, it seems skiing was all that I knew. I took the bus from school straight to skiing.â€
I always thought the contest thing was cool, but I always looked at the filmers and thought, â€˜Holy crap, I want to be doing that.â€™ Whenever I had the opportunity to be out there with them, it made me so much more stoked than competing, I guess. I canâ€™t ski park for that long â€” like consecutive days in a row. I have the need to just go make turns and ski big-mountain and get creative with different features. I love just taking freeruns.â€
Throughout her formative years in Squaw, sheâ€™d been surrounded by local industry nobility like Shane McConkey, Kent Kreitler, JT Holmes, Jonny Moseley, CR Johnson, Mike Wilson and a host of other A-listers. The exposure to such big mountain and freestyle elite â€” coupled with a solid foundation from years of race training and a mountain teeming with challenging terrain â€” provided the inspiration to charge in every facet of the sport. Flashing steep lines and stomping cliffs was merely part of the program.
By the age of 20 she was the entire package â€” the quintessential female freeskier â€” but few really knew the extent of her diverse talent. Strangely enough, this was largely on account of her personality. Mention her name, and anyone who knows Michelle is bound to envision and mention Michelle the Person before Michelle the Skier. Says K2â€™s Mike Gutt, â€œMichelle is always laughing, smiling and looking to have a good time. Itâ€™s almost like she has the constant stoke of a little kid.â€ Decesare agrees, â€œEveryone loves her. Sheâ€™s outgoing and fun. Even if she knocks herself out, sheâ€™ll get up and laugh. Sheâ€™ll be hurt and then giggle all the way down the hill.â€
Michelleâ€™s smile and genuine zeal made her a wanted woman in the ski industry. The problem is, when that happens, everyone wants a piece. In Michelleâ€™s case, the result meant more time catering to others and less time being where she wanted to be â€” on snow and ripping in front of motion cameras. â€œIâ€™ve always felt I could never say no to anything. If people asked me to do something, Iâ€™d always do it no matter what,â€ she contends. â€œIâ€™ve always had alternative pressures I guess, and I try to fulfill them all.â€
In 2007, those pressures effectively constructed the first real speed bump in Michelleâ€™s career. Sheâ€™d dislocated her kneecap and hadnâ€™t skied for three weeks to let it heal when she arrived in Laax, Switzerland, at the European Open, hosted by one of her sponsors. The conditions were less than desirable: windy, snowing and boilerplate. But Michelle felt the responsibility to perform. â€œI did a 360, grabbed, landed it and skied down. Iâ€™d cased the jump just a little bit, and I was like, â€˜Uh oh.â€™ Iâ€™d heard something. And it started to hurt and I was like,â€™ My ACLâ€™s gone.â€™ Itâ€™s pretty much the first 24 hours after finding out exactly what happened, where youâ€™re like…â€ She exhales deeply, as if reliving the moment is sucking the wind out of her sails. â€œBut then after that, having a bad attitude isnâ€™t going to help your healing process.â€
â€œI always thought the contest thing was cool, but I always looked at the filmers and thought, â€˜Holy crap, I want to be doing that.â€™â€
Michelle powered through rehabilitation and worked her way back into the game slowly, foregoing contests to focus on filming with MSP and PBP in2008. Soon enough she returned to form, slashing the top off spines, stomping25-foot cliffs, and finally nailing legitimate non-park skiing shots in the process.But in her drive to showcase her true versatility, the thing most commonly associated with process. Butting monster park wedges â€” was the real hurdle. It was springtime at Squaw, and she was ready to film with MSP and conquer demons in the process. She stood atop the in run of a poppy 60-foot table with Mark Abma. â€œThat year, every trick I threw for the first time was in the backcountry until that day,â€ she recalls. â€œI said, â€˜Okay, this is it,â€™ and just started going for it. It all came back to me. It was a super cool feeling. I got back to thinking, â€˜You can hit a jump and not blow your knee.â€™â€ In just four or five hits, Michelle progressed from the initial unnerving-speed-check-new-knee test jump to spinning flawless critical 540s. She was back.
Unfortunately, she failed to make the cut of either MSPâ€™s Claim or PBPâ€™s Reasons solely on account of her lack of quantity of footage â€” not quality (she appeared in the Claim dvd extras). Consequently, her overall talent remained in the shadows. But she grew that year. The journey back from injury instilled even more drive and a newfound sense of purpose and confidence to pursue the career path she desired, regardless of the pressures from the sidelines. â€œUltimately, I want to be a film athlete and focus my entire year on filming and leave competing behind for good. Getting a fully-rounded part has been my goal, I think, from day one. But also my goal is to get all my sponsors to back that decision and for everyone to be comfortable with that. And that this is what I want out of my skiing career and this is what Iâ€™m going to do.â€
Michelleâ€™s sentiments echoed those of her former boyfriend of two years, JP Auclair, who had a major hand in altering the course of skiing at the turn of the century but eventually realized the typical professional ski career didnâ€™t necessarily suit him. Several years ago he put career obligations on the backburner and immersed himself in the mountains and other fulfilling projects. He attended guide school in Haines, Alaska, and strongly encouraged Michelle to do the same. â€œHearing some of his stories, I realized I didnâ€™t know crap about the mountains,â€ Michelle admits, â€œAnd that if I really wanted to take my career in that direction, well, then I had to take a month out of my season and tell my sponsors that Iâ€™m going to do this, and try to develop myself as an athlete â€”being more aware of whatâ€™s around me so that I could potentially go down that path.
â€œI know Iâ€™ve skied with a ton of athletes who donâ€™t really know that much and kind of depend on the people who do know a lot. Iâ€™d rather be more independent and stand on my own two feet and pull my weight. Especially being a girl, I donâ€™t want to be hanging off other people. I want to be aware so that I can help other people and not be the tag-along whoâ€™s worthless.â€
Beyond the new in-the-field knowledge, Michelle also graduated from the frills surrounding being a pro athlete. â€œAs my career develops more and more, a part of me pulls away from the industry. I donâ€™t want to bag on the industry, but Iâ€™ve noticed a lot of superficial things in action sports, or maybe just sports in general. People seeing through your personality and just looking at results or whatever it maybe. â€˜The Whoâ€™s Who in the industryâ€™s going to be at that party,â€™ that kind of stuff â€” Iâ€™m not really into that at all. Thatâ€™s why I think Iâ€™m also more driven to the filming side of it. Iâ€™d rather be with my friends in the backcountry and having super mellow nights and not having big energy drink-sponsored parties I feel obligated to go to. All that kind of stuff is not me.â€
Out of guide school and armed with a new focus, wilderness medical training, a greater awareness of snowpacks and a healthy respect for the mountains Michelle entered the 2009 season excited and determined to finally prove herself. She still entered two competitions, winning the Aspen Open Slopestyle and taking a second at the Northstar slopestyle Dew Tour stop. But other than that she was devoting herself to filming the rest of the season with MSP for In Deep. The stars had finally aligned, and she was on fire.
MSPâ€™s Murray Wais witnessed Michelleâ€™s intense drive firsthand while filming in interior British Columbia. â€œSheâ€™splayful and fun, but she takes skiing really seriously. A lot of women sometimes seem hesitant, or not super Sheâ€™s playful to ski more aggressive, rowdy lines, but that just doesnâ€™t seem to be the case with Michelle. Filming at Retallack last winter, I was surprised how she stomped cliff after cliff and always went for her feet. She is a charger and really aggressive.â€
Then, in late February, the stars suddenly collided and the dream exploded. A casual fifteen foot cliff. An invisible rock hiding just beneath the surface. A decimated knee. Helicopter evacuation. Three hours of incredible pain. The grim MRI.Month after month after month of fighting to rebuild toward her former self.
A professional athlete in a sport that has a history of leaving many of its athletes who suffer career-altering injuries bobbing quietly behind in its wake, Michelle still has major work ahead, but she has no intentions of lying down.
Itâ€™s early September, and the leaves have yet to change. But visions of winter permeate Michelleâ€™s consciousness. â€œSkiing is my biggest outlet. My biggest passion in life. I think about it all the time, especially when Iâ€™m injured. I dream about it when Iâ€™m injured because I canâ€™t do it. I just watched Absintheâ€™s Neverland yesterday. Holy crap. I was getting butterflies the entire time watching it, just like, â€˜I gotta get back out there. I gotta get back out there.â€™ Nervous energy all balled up. I wanted to go ski right that second.â€
That elusive all-encompassing film segment that changes how people view her â€” and female skiers in general â€” still taunts her. But sheâ€™s only 22,and when she laid there on the physical therapy table, about to go another round with agony and said, â€œI have unfinished business in the ski world,â€ she wasnâ€™t being melodramatic. She was simply being Michelle Parker: a talented girl with some serious ambition.
â€œIâ€™d rather be with my friends in the backcountry… not having big energy drink-sponsored parties I feel obligated to go to.â€
Writer Scott Gaffney directed 1999 and Thereâ€™s Something about McConkey, among other iconic films. He is currently a Matchstick Productions cinematographer, and is a 16-year Squaw local.
Writer Scott Gaffney directed 1999 and Thereâ€™s Something about McConkey, among other iconic films. He is currently a Matchstick Productions cinematographer, and is a 16-year Squaw local.
This story was originally published in the November 2009 issue of Freeskier.
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Freeskier Magazine—This is skiing.