Despite the fact she’s one of the world’s greatest freeskiers—or perhaps because of it, I don’t know—Michelle Parker effuses an openness that just makes you want to hang out with her. I caught up with Michelle as she was getting ready to barnstorm with a group of shredders in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, filming for her new series with Red Bull. An air of kindness radiated through the phone: “Sorry it’s been so crazy getting this interview done,” she said.
I’m sure it was professional courtesy but she didn’t need to apologize. Michelle is the one being pulled in a million different directions. And at this point in her career, she’s taking advantage of every opportunity she gets, capitalizing on years of grinding and fighting through injuries. Injuries that at one point left her without sponsorship in 2010. That’s also when her comeback began. After rehabbing from a horrible knee surgery and cobbling together enough sponsorship and industry favors to secure a part in Matchstick Productions 2012, Superheroes of Stoke, she skied out of her mind in front of the cameras for her segment and won a Performance of the Year award from Powder magazine.
She was back. And in a big way, evidenced by her rise in national notoriety (people outside the ski industry now know her name). But Parker’s success, then and since, might be more closely traced to her incredibly diverse skill set than an award: she’s ridden half-pipe, raced gates, and even gone through training as a guide. “I think what really stands out about Michelle is that she is the epitome of versatility,” MSP’s Scott Gaffney told me. “To come from a racing background, morph into one of the sport’s best park skiers, then become known as a big mountain slayer who flashes steep dynamic lines and stomps big cliffs, and then find a love for ski mountaineering and high altitude descents. She truly has done it all. It’s impressive, and it seems as though her passion only intensifies as she broadens her experiences. And that’s pretty damn cool.”
Yes, Michelle Parker deserves everything she’s earned. But she would never tell you that. She just wants to be out in the mountains doing what she loves.
It seems like you really let your personality shine in this new series with Red Bull, Originate?
I’m pretty open with my personality in general. The goal with the series was to tell a story with each episode. The first episode, Backstory, is 10 minutes for people that didn’t know much about me. Basically last year, I ended up piggy-backing on a few Matchstick trips. This year I’m doing more trips on my own that I want to go on and highlighting these awesome people along the way. We have a rough outline of what we want to do this season but it’s always subject to change. We’re in Jackson Hole now. We’re definitely doing a Canada segment in Pemberton and Whistler with skiers like Mark Abma and Eric Hjorleifson. Then we’ll try to get over to Europe– Norway or Chamonix. You have a proposal set at the start but you kind of have to think on your toes with the weather changes.
Talk about your skiing background.
I had a racing background, a tech background. And skiing park was always super fun. But I had more fun skiing powder. That’s what made me want to just film. Competing against other people, often times that pits friends against friends. I just want to compete against myself and be on a team with everyone else. I like that approach. I never want to make it anything but that. That’s what drove me to break away from competing. I wanted more time in the mountains, more expeditions. Take Jackson Hole for instance, the backcountry is so accessible, and I get to explore so many aspects of the sport on trips like this. Skiing in Teton National Park holds the same reverence to me as Chamonix. And I like being able to shred with people like Alex Yoder, and highlight the way he turns on a snowboard. That’s what’s so cool and new and invigorating to me. I love keeping it fresh.
Growing up in the Tahoe area, there were a lot of good athletes to look up to. Who were your heroes?
First and foremost, my biggest female hero was Mia Hamm. I was psyched on her. I wanted to be a pro soccer player. I had posters of her in my room growing up. Then of course, Sarah Burke, Kristi Leskinen, Ingrid Backstrom, JT Holmes, and CR Johnson. Line Skis was one of my first sponsors so Eric Pollard was always inspiring. Hilaree Nelson has become a really close friend. Emily Harrington. I’ve had so many amazing female role models. My mom is a passionate skier and has always been one of my heroes.
After you were hurt and ended up losing your sponsors following that Matchstick Productions shoot in 2009-2010, what was the conversation like getting new support?
It took two years to come back. Yeah, within that time I lost all of them. When I got back on my feet, I filmed with Warren Miller, pretty much on my own dime, and that was just turning, I wasn’t hitting airs because I wasn’t that healthy. So I hit up one of the filmers from Matchstick and asked if anyone was interested in sponsoring a female skier? Atomic and Mountain Hardware were looking for someone. I got hurt on a Matchstick shoot so I think they felt like they owed it to me a little. And it was such a blessing that those sponsors trusted me. I had no expectations. I just missed skiing so damn much. From the shoots I did that season I won Best Performance and was picked up by Red Bull. So now, I just appreciate it all so much.
So that really made you appreciate what you do even more?
I always felt really lucky to do what I do for a career. I never lost sight of it. I’d do anything to ski as much as I get to. I really credit a positive attitude. Even going through rehab. I just love skiing so much, every aspect of snow, really–skiing, snowboarding, skiing uphill in the backcountry, all of it just reinforces my belief now in having a positive attitude.
Aside from injury, what was the biggest thing you’ve had to overcome–your biggest obstacle?
It’s something I haven’t totally overcome yet and it’s always on my mind. I don’t have an answer for it: basically risk and understanding what I am willing to risk. Being at peace and confident with it. That comes with losing so many friends in the mountains. I’m always taking courses and trying to gain knowledge in backcountry skills. I try and make the best decisions I possibly can. Risk is an interesting aspect– on the other hand, it’s what makes the sport we love so beautiful and amazing.
How do you balance hard charging in the mountains—which traditionally is sort of a masculine trait–with your own femininity?
Growing up I was a huge tomboy. I played sports on the guys’ teams. I primarily got picked on by girls because of that. That was hard for me. I was bullied and I still notice the effects of it. Middle school wasn’t easy. But in high school, I found skiing where I was comfortable and I could always get along with the guys really easily. As I’ve gotten older, and with all the amazing female mentors in my life, I’ve found myself craving girl time and those activities. Feminine power is so great and so beautiful. Especially as I get older, I’m looking for that more and more–supporting girls, connecting with them differently. It’s really fun to be in the mountains with women like Elyse (Saugstad). We push each other and it’s healthy competition that inspires me. These days, I don’t have a hard time balancing that. I’m especially aware of it right now, staying with eight boys in Jackson Hole (laughs). Being aware of my own thought process. The things I appreciate and maintaining my balance. Sometimes being surrounded by men, I see my masculine side coming out in myself. So one of the reminders that I actually use to feel that femininity is to put on makeup. I don’t wear a lot of makeup. But just that act and self care—like stretching in the morning—I tap into that feminine side. I love the balance.
Is it easier to make it in professional skiing as a woman these days?
More so than when I started. When I started, Kristi and Sarah were pushing slopestyle and halfpipe. Sarah was always pushing equal practice for the girls and prize money. She was pretty far ahead of her time. To some degree, we’ve all stood by that. Throughout my career, there was definitely some navigating the pitfalls of being a female. But now, it seems like all companies are tapping into women on their teams, using them for marketing and public speaking. All of my girlfriends are way busier than my guy friends. The pay is still different but I think the balance is working itself out. Women in so many action sports have all been pushing together. So it’s happening more so than when I started.
Talk about starting your avalanche program, S.A.F.E.A.S.
I just felt like there was a need for more of an introduction to avalanche awareness. I felt it being in the mountains, and as I spent more time out there, I wanted to help encourage young ladies specifically to not be intimidated. To create a welcoming, open environment. Then I found men were asking for the same course as well, so now it’s co-ed. I partnered with other athletes, like Elyse (Saugstad), right after her accident (Tunnel Creek, Stephens Pass). It’s our way of being more involved in our community in a way we feel is really beneficial. And the response has been so amazing.