She is Living Her Dreams. Michelle Roark is a rarity. A vivacious, energetic athlete who, through sheer determination, grit and an unwavering belief in her dreams, single-handedly pulled herself up by the bootstraps to compete in the Winter Olympics, obtain a degree in chemical engineering, marry the man of her dreams and create a successful perfume company. A world-class skier and creator of a magnificent line of perfume, Roark is a testament to the power to overcome obstacles and touch the stars. Or, more specifically, to go for the gold in a phenomenal way. Today, Roark trains and competes for the U.S. Ski Team, concentrating her talents on downhill bump skiing. In the off-season, and even during her peak training, she puts her creative and intellectual energies into Phi-nomenal, a line of perfume boasting all-natural ingredients. What makes her achievements even more remarkable is that her transition into the world of perfume stems directly from her skiing experience.
“When I first made the U.S. Ski Team, our sports psychologist sat down with me and told me I had to be able to visualize all five of my senses when I’m training and competing,” she says. “I could visualize everything but the smell, because when you think about it, how do you visualize the smell of skiing? I became fixated on finding the scent of the zone, which embodies energy, confidence and focus.” Seeking something that could encompass all three of these characteristics, Roark began researching the medicinal purposes of essential oils. Aided by her degree in chemical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines, Roark worked with the knowledge that the sense of smell is directly related to that part of the brain that affects mood, or emotion. Next, she embarked on a quest to combine these oils in a manner that would appeal to the missing sense. “I wanted to incorporate the Phi aspect, which is known to mathematicians and engineers as one of the world’s perfect numbers. Things in nature grow in Phi proportions, so it just makes sense,” Roark explains. “DaVinci used the concept of Phi in his artwork, understanding it was pleasing to the sense of sight, and Mozart used it in his music, because it’s pleasing to the sense of hearing.”
After months of research, Roark was able to successfully blend a perfect combination of essential oils to create her Phi-nomenal product line, expressly designed to appeal to the elusive sense of smell. Her satisfaction with this life’s work shines through: “Our mission statement? We want to be worn by the first female president of the United States!” Creating the line is no small feat, considering it can take up to one year to develop a perfect scent. Perfect, that is, when the research and development are being handled by a self-proclaimed perfectionist, for whom only the exact combination of ingredients in the exact proportions will suffice. Roark travels the globe to source the best vendors.
“There is a marked difference between my products and most others,” Roark says. “The majority of perfumes have synthetic ingredients and use a lot of heavy alcohols. My perfume can last in a bottle for 100 years, compared with commercial perfumes, which typically last nine to 12 months. My scent will remain on the skin for six to eight hours, and because it has a true essence, it will change with you and will vary with each person’s body chemistry. It’s developed through a process that uses the ancient art of perfumery, which dates back to the Egyptians, who used these natural scents in their true form.” Even the packaging of her perfume illustrates perfection and grace. Each bottle is in the shape of a beautiful flower, which has special significance for the scent it holds. “Take this one, for example,” Roark says, holding up a delicate bottle made of beautiful crystal that comes from a small town in the Czech Republic. “It’s in the shape of a little flower, but now it will bloom into a tiger lily that is strong, smart and badass!”
That last statement is the very essence of Roark’s dauntless spirit. As a young child, she was exposed to the highly competitive world of figure skating and had the good fortune to train with the cream of the crop: Debbie Thomas, Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan. The financial burden of the sport took its toll on the family, and at the age of 15 she hung up her skates. Clearly she had potential in the sport, but this was not her dream, and this was not the end of her sports life. Her father was an avid skier, and Roark shared his love of the sport.
“My father skied every weekend, and I realized early on that if I wanted to see my dad, I had to ski,” she says. “My figure skating teachers hated it when I went skiing, but that was the only way I could spend time with my dad. But looking back on it, I really do think I developed a great deal of coordination and balance from all those years of skating. “Since I was 5, I knew I wanted to be a chemical engineer, and that I wanted to compete in the Olympics. I remember being in a small town in Utah, and I was walking with my dad when we came to a natural gas plant that was being built. There was a woman in a hard hat, and my dad explained she was a chemical engineer. I knew one day I wanted to do that.” Her skating career ended, Roark began competing in freestyle skiing, winning the junior nationals at age 16, her first year out of the gate. She qualified to compete on the U.S. Ski Team, but sustained a bad knee injury in her first major competition, ruining her chance to compete in the 1994 Winter Olympics. Her bad luck continued when she sustained another knee injury, preventing competition in the 1998 games. “I could have thrown in the towel, but instead I looked at my rehab time as an opportunity to begin my studies at the Colorado School of Mines,” she says. With no financial resources, she was trying to make ends meet, paying for school and skiing.
“I was 19 years old, living in Winter Park, and wondering how I was going to be able to compete. The U.S. Ski Team funds your skiing, but you still have to pay them back. I was working three jobs, at a bakery, movie theater and T-shirt shop, when I came up with the idea to buy a house. I took all the money I’d saved, found a renter, and used that renter’s first and last month’s rent and security deposit to purchase a home. I rented out all the rooms in the house and slept in the loft,” she says. Literally broke, Roark was more determined than ever to reach her ultimate goal, to compete in the Winter Olympics. Several blown-out knees and ensuing surgeries had left her bruised but undaunted, and she continued to pursue her dream: “I remember being 16 years old and living on my own. I couldn’t afford the lift ticket to compete in the competition, so I would get up at 5 a.m. and hike up the mountain so I could make the run down. I would sell Olympic hats and pins just to get bus fare to return to Colorado following training camps or competitions in other areas.” In 1999, Roark won a World Cup Championship and again qualified for the Olympics. Then, another serious knee injury. “It was a pattern. Every Olympic year I would be injured, every year following the Olympics I would be fully rehabbed and ready to go,” she reflects. Now it was 2002; again, another injury kept her on the sidelines.
But it was not all discouraging for Roark, who throughout her setbacks managed to remain strong and determined. A sharp investor, she had purchased a place in Park City, which sold for a hefty profit just before the Olympics. She took that money, hired a ski coach and won back-to-back World Cups, which left her primed for the 2006 Olympics. All the while, she was working on her new line of perfume. In 2005, she took third place in the World Cup in Lake Placid, and then went to Fernie, British Columbia, where she admittedly had some of the “best runs of my career.” In January of 2005 she went to Deer Valley, Utah, and successfully competed on the same course that earlier had left her injured. “I wore my Phi-nomenal ‘confidence’ fragrance on that run, and I was on a mission,” she says. “I began to search the world for the best rose petals, which I eventually obtained from the Valley of the Roses, in Bulgaria.” By this time, Roark had become recognizable for both her fantastic skiing and her fantastic scents. “I was, and still am, definitely the girliest girl on the tour. I ski with sparkles on my clothing and lipstick in my pocket. The clothes are somewhat boyish, so I’ll embellish them with fur collars,” she explains. But most notable of all was that finally, after years of waiting, she made it to the Olympics. It was 2006, and the Olympic Games were being held in Torino, Italy. Roark was there, this time as a competitor.
She recounts the experience: “So here’s what I remember. I’m standing at the top of my run and thinking of my coach, who had won the Silver at the Olympics in Lillehamer, Norway. I was thinking I’ll either finish first or nothing. It was a 26-second mogul run, and I hit a bobble and came in late. But all I thought was I’d rather go for it than wonder for the rest of my life. “I lost, but I came away with so much more. I learned life lessons there. I realized how great it was to have role models who aren’t Britney Spears or Paris Hilton. This is such a great sport to encourage kids to get involved in. It teaches kids to stand on their own, and there’s a huge amount of camaraderie and support. “I remember my first competition, when I heard two girls on my team standing at the side of the slope cheering me on. It was so different from figure skating, with the intense competition from your own teammates.” So where has all this life experience brought her? Today, she is happily married to the “man of my dreams,” whom she met while rehabbing at a gym in Winter Park. “I was wearing a sparkly headband and looking kind of cute,” she recalls. “He saw me and thought I was from Texas! He asked me at one point why I traveled so much, and because I wasn’t sure I would be able to ski any more, I told him I was a chemical engineer, and he immediately thought, ‘how boring.’ But that night a friend told him I ski on the U.S. Ski Team, and after a time, the rest was history.” A storybook romance ensued, and the couple married in 2004.
“I’ve learned so much along my way,” Roark says. “I had my last knee surgery in 2002, and, knock on wood, I’m feeling great. I know now how important it is to live fully, love wastefully and be happy in the present.” And, she adds, with a huge smile, “I’m probably the only person in the world who can ski moguls like I do and make perfume. I mean, think about it. Coco Chanel could never shred the moguls!”
Written by ELLEN GRAY
Photography by KIT WILLIAMS