Roark's sweet smell of success
PARK CITY, Utah -- With one World Cup moguls event to go before the Olympics, there are two spots remaining on the U.S. team and three women who could claim them.
The women still in the running need every advantage they can conjure up. Michelle Roark's secret weapon Saturday was the sweet smell of success, a sensory aid she's convinced may have helped lift her to a third-place finish at Deer Valley critical to her hopes of earning a trip to Vancouver.
Roark, 35, who is close to earning a college degree in chemical engineering, began messing around with essential oils a few years ago after a sports psychologist suggested she try to use all five senses to focus and achieve peak performance. Turns out Roark has a discerning nose. She wound up launching her own natural fragrance line called Phi-nomenal, blended in a downtown Denver building where she also owns a salon.
After the Wall Street Journal featured Roark's entrepreneurial story last fall, her entire inventory sold out, but her skiing wasn't going quite as smashingly. After two top-10 finishes at a World Cup event in Finland, Roark had a subpar weekend in Calgary and found herself in the middle of a talented pack vying for Olympic spots.
She had been tinkering with a new scent, and wore it for the first time here in Utah. Roark calls it "Inspiration." She lifted the proprietary veil just enough to disclose that the potion contains sweet orange, bergamot, myrrh ("A really key ingredient that I'm excited about. Powdery, a little vanilla-ish."), clove and frankincense.
"This is definitely a little on the lighter side," compared to some of her other fragrances, Roark said. "I have a floral, I have a fresh, I have a spicy, I have a woodsy. I'm not even sure exactly what category this fits into." But she is certain she'll keep wearing it. "The trial for it was this competition and this is my first podium, so I'd say I'll keep going with it," she said.
Aromatherapy may have been a factor, but there's also a more nuts-and-bolts explanation for Roark's top-three showing Saturday.
Roark has been competing at the elite level in moguls for nearly half her life and is a former World Cup champion and world championship silver medalist, but believed there was still space to improve, even in her mid-30s. She reread the rulebook and decided she wanted to revamp her turn technique, paying special attention to carving -- as opposed to sliding through -- the sinuous line around the bumps.
She sought advice from 1998 gold medalist Jonny Moseley, two-time Olympian Jeremy Bloom and 2006 silver medalist Toby Dawson, a family friend who had raced against her younger brother. Then Roark asked -- "Actually, I pretty much begged" -- Dawson to work with her.
Dawson had quit skiing cold turkey and moved to the decidedly non-winter-sports destination of Palm Springs, Calif., to devote himself full time to the goal of becoming a professional golfer. He agreed to coach Roark only because of their personal relationship, and admitted he could barely stand up on skis when he flew to meet her in Chile last summer after a U.S. team camp.
Although Roark repeatedly made a point of crediting her U.S. team coaches Saturday, she added that she had "learned more in five days with [Dawson] in Chile than my entire career in freestyle." They have had a couple of shorter sessions together since. During training Friday night, Dawson hiked to the top of the moguls run in street clothes to give Roark some pointers.
"If you saw a person on a beginner ski slope and you saw them fly down or carve their way down, who would you think was a better skier?" Dawson said Saturday. "There's no reason that should be different in the moguls. Michelle called me because she knows I'm a stickler on where we could take the sport and she also wanted to bring her level up as high as she could. She's getting older and this is her last big hurrah, so she didn't want to hold anything back.
"That's how you need to set yourself up for the Olympics. Of course, the U.S. team does a great job, but you have to take the bull by the horns and make sure there's one person just looking out for you."
Roark, a diminutive former figure skater with the voice of a Mouseketeer and the Type-A drive of a Fortune 500 CEO, is now one of three women playing musical chairs for the last two slots on the Olympic team in her discipline. Heather McPhie's runner-up finish to World Cup leader and defending Olympic champion Jennifer Heil of Canada marked McPhie's second podium in three days and cemented her invitation. Hannah Kearney earned her trip by winning the U.S. trials last month.
Shannon Bahrke, the 2002 silver medalist, also has a third-place finish in World Cup competition this season, and four other top-10s, while Roark has a third place and three top-10s. Their teammate Shelly Robertson has four top-10 finishes but no podium appearances. The selection will come down to the World Cup event in Lake Placid, N.Y., next weekend.
Turn technique counts for 50 percent of the score in moguls competition, but Roark also has a flashy trick in her pocket: the crowd-pleasing "Bronco," a 360-degree spin with a spread-eagle thrown in halfway through. She does it on the second of the two jumps on the run.
Roark said she was encouraged when a judge on the World Cup circuit -- who was not involved in Saturday's event judging -- sought her out afterward to compliment her. "I felt when I decided to keep going with this after the last Olympics that there was still another level I could reach with my skiing," Roark said. "I think I'm on my way."
The portable podium set up in the finish area Saturday listed forward at a noticeable angle. Roark scrambled onto it with some difficulty and had to thrust one ski-booted foot forward to keep from sliding off as she smiled for the cameras. Her chances of getting to another Olympics are still similarly precarious, but with her spatial sense -- or should we say scents? -- Roark has given herself a great shot.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.