After a life-changing injury, big-mountain skier Michelle Parker is finally back
Ten years ago, Michelle Parker was transitioning from life as a competitive slalom racer to that of a freeskier, focused on tricks and backcountry slopes. She'd nabbed a film shoot in Retallack, British Columbia, a spot famous for its steep hills and densely grown trees.
For backcountry skiers, mapping the way down is a calculated -- and risky -- science that requires careful observation of a mountain as the skier treks her way up, noting every tree, rock, nook, cranny and curve for a successful run.
Parker had done many such slopes before, but this time, as the Truckee, California, native made her way down, she hit a cliff and tripped on a rock hidden by the snow.
"I reached down, and my knee cap was twisted around my leg. I couldn't move," said Parker, now 31.
She had to be helicoptered out of the area and immediately went into surgery for various torn ligaments, microfractures and cartilage damage in her right knee. She would undergo another surgery about a month later.
During her first year of recovery, she remained on various sponsors' rosters, but was ultimately dropped by all of them. Her accountant told her that she didn't have enough money in her bank account to pay her taxes.
She had just bought a house and the thought of starting her career over from scratch was daunting, to say the least.
"I didn't have a back-up plan. I could sell the house and start over again if I needed to," she said. "But skiing is my biggest passion, and I love what I do. And I'm going to chase after this until I get the hard red light."
Now, a decade later, that "hard" red light has yet to come. Since her injury, Parker has emerged as one of only a handful of women ski film athletes and has been featured in almost a dozen films -- an indicator of her prominence in the freeskiing world, where success is measured more by sponsorships and film features than podium placements.
One of those was the film "Originate" in October. Part travelogue, part action sports documentary, the five-part series features Parker and fellow skiers, both men and women, tackling some of the most famous -- and visually stunning -- skiing locales in the world, including Pemberton, British Columbia, and Myoko, Japan. Fellow skiers Elyse Saugstad, Mark Abma and Cody Townsend are also featured.
It was crucial, Parker said, that the film include athletes of all genders, skiing together. Among big-mountain skiers, she estimates that there are probably around 20 women in her sport. But in one ski film alone, she said, you might see 20 male athletes. It's a disparity she's working to fix.
"I think ultimately we didn't want it to be women's only. We wanted it to be about equality because that is what we see as the future, men and women together," she said about the film.
It's something Parker valued early on in her sports career, as one of only three girls in her hometown's youth baseball league. Her father, Greg, a former tennis pro, was her team's coach. He felt that having his daughter play among mostly boys was an important lesson not only for Michelle, but also for her teammates: that girls could be just as good at the sport as boys.
"I had a little boy turn to me and say, 'Coach, how come we have girls on our team?,'" he said. "And I said, 'Cause you're lucky.' "
Parker's natural transition from competitive to freestyle skiing and ability to bounce back from otherwise career-ending injuries have also impressed fellow big-mountain skiers like James Heim, who has coached alongside and filmed with her.
"In reality, there's not that many skiers that come through an injury like that, lose all their sponsors and actually push through and are committed that hard to get back involved," said Heim. "She was able to go up [the mountains] even after her injury and ski some really technical blind hard runs. And if someone comes from a different background [like she does], it's hard to pick these lines and ski them well."
As Parker has learned, injuries don't stop with the body. After her 2009 accident, she resolved to dive into non-skiing passions during her downtime. She took up ukulele, attended classes at a community college and re-modeled her home, all to help heal her spirit as well.
"Injuries are really opportunities to grow and explore other aspects of your life that you're interested in. That's been a really beautiful process for me," said Parker. "I can't brand myself as a skier all the time."
She also co-founded S.A.F.E. A.S. (Skiers Advocating and Fostering Education for Avalanche and Snow Safety), a women-geared organization that holds safety and awareness clinics about avalanches and has reached over 1,000 people, according to Parker.
Over the years she has learned to finally listen to herself -- the inner voice that tells her that she is too worn out to film another day or that her legs are too tired, no matter how good the conditions are. Production schedules can be tight and rigorous, with conditions sometimes only allowing for a few days of shooting. She knows when she is skiing for ego and getting an epic shot that will impress her sponsors and film crew versus when she is doing it for herself.
She has yet to go back and attempt the same run at Retallack that landed her in the ER in 2009. Not that she won't consider it in the future, just not right now.
"There are so many mountains to explore," she said. For her, both literally and figuratively.