Age Gap lets the athletes do the talking, putting an up-and-comer in touch with a longtime pro.
“I wanted to chat with Michelle because she is kicking ass out there. She is a legend in the ski world and continues to push herself and inspire people like myself. She has made the most of her career, not only a pioneer but an amazing role model in so many ways.” — TL
When was the moment you knew you wanted to pursue skiing?
And what did you envision you would do with skiing at that time?
I love this question—it makes me think back to when I was 15-years-old and garnered my first racing sponsorship. At the time, I was aware of how expensive racing was becoming and, out of respect for my parents, had to weigh that with where my true passion was when I was skiing. The structure of racing, [its focus on] training, less powder days and less freedom to do what I wanted to do, was becoming less appealing.
I had one coach that would tell me to go freeski on a powder day and when he left [the team], I left, too. There was a moment when I was told not to ski with the guys, not to go upside-down and that I had to be at training right when training started… I was losing my passion for skiing and I couldn’t let that slip away. I started skiing in the park, mostly just with my friends. There were plenty of professional skiers in Tahoe at the time, but not one single female, so I didn’t really think of that as an option.
One day, I was just doing my thing in the park and Jason Levinthal [founder of Line and J skis] handed me his business card and told me he would like to sponsor me. That conversation led me into the competition scene and I entered my first slopestyle comp at the U.S. Open. At that event, in Vail, I saw other women hitting jumps and rails, and left feeling so motivated to learn more—that was probably where I found my direction and decided that this was something I wanted to do.
At that point, though, I’m not sure that I had too much of a long-term vision. I was more focused on learning tricks for the next contest. Things continued to develop, I got a few more sponsors and, sure enough, went back and landed on the podium during my second year competing. That’s when I made it into X Games, graduated school early and started to think that maybe I could do this for a living.
I took one year off after high school, that became two and then, by the third year, I was actually making a decent living and it all seemed feasible. My parents never doubted that direction and instead just offered full support for me following my passion. I will be forever grateful for that.
You have now become a mentor to many young athletes in the sport.
Did young Michelle ever think she would be in this role?
People always used to ask, “Where do you see yourself in five years, 10 years…?” I think my answer was always the same… “Skiing, duh.” What that adventure has entailed has truly shaped who I am and my views on life. I’ve been lucky enough to have some really incredible mentors over the years and certainly wouldn’t be where I’m at without them. I don’t know if I ever thought that I would actually be one until it just started happening. I guess there was a part of me that always thought I would be the youngest on the trip and the only girl, because that’s how it was for so many years. It’s an honor to have conversations, to be in the mountains and hang with the next generation of up-and-coming mountain lovers. It brings me so much joy and fulfillment. I’ve always said that inspiring women has been a huge drive and how I’ve found purpose in what I do. To take that to the next level and personally mentor some to achieve their goals makes all of this skiing stuff have so much more depth and meaning. I need that.
I got some insight from your good friend Grete Eliassen about a Red Bull trip to the Australian outback a while back.
What was the best part about this adventure?
Haha—that trip was life-changing and one of the more memorable adventures I’ve ever had. Years ago, Red Bull brought myself and three other professional female athletes, Grete included, on a surprise trip. We didn’t even know where we were going until we arrived at the airport and were handed our tickets. The idea behind the trip was that we had no idea what was going to happen, thus giving up any sort of control and forcing us to be completely in the moment.
The trip was guided by a Navy SEAL and a PJ [a pararescueman]. They had spent a year—maybe more—planning everything in great detail. We ended up going to Northwest Australia and traveled through one of the more desolate areas on the planet—civilization was far, far away. There are so many details about why this trip was so amazing; but, in short, we were put to the test physically and mentally for two weeks straight in the middle of nowhere, with all kinds of poisonous spiders and snakes lurking around.
The most memorable part of the trip for me was getting to meet and spend time with the Indigenous community who welcomed us onto their land. We spent a few days learning from a woman named Leah, hiking with her, listening to her stories about her culture and life, and marveling at the beauty of her home. In the short time that I spent with her, I felt a far deeper connection to where we were and, ultimately, had one of the most intense moments of feeling a deep energy from a place. I still have a painting that Leah gave me and, every time I look at it, I can smell the grass that we were walking through and can vividly see the turquoise blues of the ocean.
I learned so much from this trip, but one thing that stuck with me is how capable you are when you are completely exhausted. Pushing through these self-inflicted perceived limits is always gratifying.
What did the transformation from being a “park rat” to “pow slayer” look like?
Did you have a mentor showing you the ropes?
I think I went pow, park and back to pow. Before I learned how to ski in the park, I would just freeski as much as possible. I had that racing background, loved to go fast in the rat pack and chase [my friends] around the mountain. Plus, there was always Shane McConkey, [Scott] Gaffney or someone else to look up to while at the resort. I knew that this is where my passion was in skiing all along. I would get bored in the park after a long contest stint. I had to get out of there and ski the whole mountain to keep me going.
I bought my first sled when I was 17-years-old, a 2003 Polaris RMK 600 that ran like a dream. Bought it for $3,500 and sold it just about six years ago for the same price—ha! So, I was into filming when I was pretty young, too. We had a super fun squad in Tahoe making movies and that led to getting to film with Poor Boyz and bigger production companies. I would hit anything… urban, wall rides, park, big jumps, backcountry jumps, pretty much anything with the exception of skiing big lines, as I didn’t quite have that skillset yet.
Finally, I got the opportunity to film with Matchstick Productions in Tahoe thanks to Gaffney, who spotted me from the chair at our home resort [Palisades Tahoe, formerly Squaw Valley] hitting the fingers under KT-22. That was pretty eye-opening—it was the first time I was on, what felt like, a real-deal shoot. I kept sending it and not landing, but felt so inspired watching Shane, Ingrid [Backstrom], and JT [Holmes] ski.
When I was roughly 20-years-old and still really close with JP [Auclair], he mentioned one day that, if I wanted to really film and get into the mountains, I had to take the proper avalanche awareness and safety courses. He invited me up to Haines, Alaska, to take a course with him. JP invested in me and opened up my eyes to all that you could do in skiing and where you could take it with the proper tool kit, education and understanding of the mountains. He showed me the way, and I always admired him for keeping it fresh. He went from moguls, to park, to pipe, to jumps in the backcountry, to big mountain lines and, eventually, ski-mountaineering. The sport and JP were always evolving.
Under his influence, I’ve followed a similar path with an open mind and an eagerness to learn. The more you know, the more you are capable of in the mountains. After JP, there were many more like Hoji and Heimer [James Heim], but I think JP was the catalyst to it all.
You have pushed skiing in so many ways. What is next for you? Any new goals?
I have so many ideas of what to do next that I get really excited about, but have to hone in on a couple that feel right at the time. There are a lot of exciting projects going on right now that I am honored to be a part of, and I look forward to this upcoming season. Collaboration with others gets me hyped and supporting other people’s projects—especially after so many have dedicated time to “Originate” [Michelle’s mini-series on Red Bull TV]—is very fulfilling to me. Going into this season, I’m vibing with just having the most fun that I can have. I feel so lucky to have been doing this for so long and the past few years have been a major hustle. I’m hyped to soak it up and really truly enjoy this winter. That’s my honest answer… big, fun goals.
Would you ever do an urban trip with me?
Yo!!! Haha—a couple of years ago I was walking through Nelson, BC, imagining JP hitting all these street spots. There was snow on the ground and, I’m not going to lie, I was pretty motivated to get some shots. I think it would be so fun and would LOVE to experience that with you.
Looking back, you have been one of the few ladies to be involved with production companies or featured in movies… why do you think that is?
I’m thinking really hard right now about my path and how my space in the world of skiing came to be. I know my story, but I don’t know everyone else’s, so I will share from my experience knowing that this may not be true for everyone…
When I first came onto the scene and started filming, I knew I wanted to work with Matchstick Productions. I wanted to ski with Shane and Ingrid, to be filmed by Gaffney, ski powder and celebrate the mountains with friends… that sounded like the most fun path forward. Eventually, Gaffney approached me, started including me in local shoots and I kept showing up and doing my very best to get shots, learn and progress. I was definitely in the right place at the right time, but I also took every opportunity and always did my very, very best.
It wasn’t always easy to be only female on all of those trips for years and years. I didn’t feel like the environment was conducive to me skiing my best. Eventually, I recognized that it was actually really important for me to be in the mountains with other women athletes and other women, in general. It gave me more confidence, helped me to level up and, ultimately, I progressed at a faster rate when other women were present. In order to do that, we had to take things into our own control and start collaborating together. That’s when the magic started to happen. This exposure to other women in the mountains inspired me to take more initiative with my career and I gained more confidence in creating that space moving forward.
Taking initiative with my project, “Originate,” has been a very empowering process for me. I saw a lack of female-centric storytelling and I wanted to change that. Red Bull agreed and, together, we created something that I am really proud of. If there is any pattern here to creating media with women involved, it is us as women taking the initiative and just making it happen.
So, to answer your question, production companies have been slow to include women—and, by that, I mean more than just the token female. If I am a consumer and I am seeing videos with only one female represented, I probably would look at that and be less inclined to go skiing with such little representation. Thus, the field of female skiers isn’t getting much bigger much faster. At first, we weren’t being targeted by marketing campaigns; but, finally, the bigger production companies started including more women and, all of the sudden, there are all of these younger women being seen and coming up on the scene. We are experiencing that change right now. The trickle down effect is visible and it’s inspiring. As a female athlete at the top of this sport, I feel a responsibility to open more doors, to create more space for women, to show how it can be done because seeing is believing. After 19 years, this year is the first year that I am on a project with all female camera operators, athletes, photographers, etc. and it feels amazing! To know that we have the power to push this needle more quickly is empowering, so keep asking for what you deserve, proposing these projects and taking up the space that you own.
You’re close friends with climber Emily Harrington and you both seem to enjoy the suffering that comes alongside big objectives, like climbing huge peaks or ski touring for days. When did you realize you liked this feeling and why do you keep seeking it out?
I personally feel really satisfied moving through the mountains and feeling deeply intimate with my environment. Those times out there on the skin track when you are with your friends, away from any distraction, playing in the mountains, are some of the most pure and joy-filled moments. Add a little bit of physical difficulty to the situation and you have the perfect recipe for what could be a deep and meaningful experience. When your lifeline is your mountain partner and you are moving through the paces, voluntarily suffering together, going through ups and downs, pushing through perceived limits, failing, succeeding, making decisions and acting as a team, you are creating a bond that is so intimately deep. I am addicted to sharing those experiences with others. That is why I like this feeling and why I keep doing it. The peaks, views, accomplishments, runs, climbs—all of that is really great, too—but I very much look forward to the friendships rooted in these adventures.
Have you ever found yourself in the same position as Gaffney or McConkey,
wanting to take an up-and-comer under your wing, like they did for you?
Yeah, for sure! I love passing on knowledge, trying to help out and getting the opportunity to empower the youth with knowledge and experience.
If you could give a young girl aspiring to pursue a ski career any advice, what would it be?
Ski as much as you can. Time on snow is everything. Always keep it fun.
The best skier on the mountain is the one having the most fun.
What did you want to be when you were just a kid with a big imagination?
I wanted to be a professional soccer player. Mia Hamm was my biggest inspiration. I traveled to watch her play and was absolutely obsessed.
Favorite place to ski? Why?
The Sierra Nevada mountain range because it is my backyard
and is vast with endless possibility.
Lacing a line from the top-to-bottom with grace, style and air.
Or, more literally, a smooth and natural three.
If you could be a professional at anything (other than skiing), what would it be?
Are you a planner?
No, very spontaneous.
What life goals do you have for yourself?
Ski my whole life. Live simply. Laugh often.
Take care of people. Build community. Adventure often.