Welcome to the Chockalife podcast, my guest today is Michelle Roark who spent sixteen years on the US Freestyle Ski Team, she’s a former Olympian, World Cup Champion, National Champion and Silver Medalist on the World Cup Tour. During her incredible time as an athlete, she persevered through seven knee surgeries and faced many hardships raising funds to keep her athletic dreams alive.
After completing a chemical engineering degree, she launched Phia Lab, an all natural perfume and body products company rooted in the divine proportions of the number phi. Most importantly, Michelle’s attitude in life is to live, love, be phenomenal, and to surround herself with people who believe in the same.
Michelle: Thank you, thanks for having me.
So – when I met you I was incredibly intrigued by your story. You are someone who has persevered through a lot of things and – talk a little bit first of all about your journey to becoming an Olympic skier.
Michelle: Okay – well, you know when I was five years old I knew I wanted to be two things, one, an Olympian, and two a chemical engineer – which you may think how does a five year old know she wants to be a chemical engineer? But there is actually a story that goes along with it and it’s true and I totally stuck with it – and with the Olympics goal I wanted to start off in figure skating and I thought I’d always go to the Olympics in figure skating and love, love, loved it!
But when that came to kind of a crashing halt because it was too much of a strain on my family at the time, and it was so expensive and they were going through a divorce and other things – I decided if I couldn’t succeed in that I would succeed in something else and I took up freestyle mogul skiing. I started to pursue a goal of going to the Olympics in that – which was finally accomplished in 2006 and 2010.
So, I’m curious when you started out in figure skating – how did you start out in that – was that something that you saw and just thought – I want to do that – that’s something I’m gonna do?
Michelle: Yeah – so with the chemical engineering when I was five – I watched the Olympics and I saw the skaters on TV and thought that’s what I want to do. And then, just kind of went from there – so I really, really loved it and asked – since I was five – asked like almost every night if my dad would put me in skating or gymnastics or dance but I really wanted to do skating. That’s what I would always tell him and finally when I was seven we moved to Colorado and he finally enrolled me in some skating classes and it just took off from there.
And so you said you had to stop – was that because of financial difficulties then?
Michelle: Uh huh – so I was nationally ranked, I skated with Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding – went to the Nationals – I skated like about five hours a day – I’d get up at 4:30 every morning and go skating before school and I would skate after school. I was extremely dedicated and I really, really loved it but when I was 15 my parents were going through a divorce and it was just too much of a financial burden for them and it was very – it is a very expensive sport, especially back then because you had to do the patch skating as well so it was like double the ice time – but anyhow, it was just too expensive for us to continue and as a fifteen year old girl I really didn’t have any other means so, that door was just kind of shut.
Well, it’s interesting because nobody thinks of skiing as sort of a cheaper and easier alternative so (laughs) how did that come about and especially moguls – which is kind of punishing?
Michelle: Right (laughs) well I was really fortunate. It was right on the cusp of being accepted as an Olympic sport when I was going into it – so it was getting its acceptance – but at the same time it was still pro – so you could have sponsors for skiing – where as figure skating you could not have any sponsors at all or you would ruin your amateur status and you wouldn’t be able to go to the Olympics back then.
And so, my first year competing I won junior nationals, I qualified for the US Ski Team, I won pretty much everything that I competed in and I got sponsored right away and there’s this wonderful program in Colorado – Colorado All-Star Program done by Colorado Ski Country where the top ten percent of competitive skiers in Colorado get a gold card from Colorado Ski Country so it allows me to ski free at all ski areas in Colorado which was really, really helpful. And then sponsors helped me with entry fees and everything like that – although it was still certainly, certainly a struggle. (laughs) It wasn’t like sponsors were throwing money at me, I was still struggling to get by. I sold off everything I owned, I hitchhiked to competitions, I lived in a tent, I worked three jobs – I just found a way to make it happen.
You know – and that makes me wonder – how do you think you got that kind of drive and determination? Do you think you were just born with it – how do you get that drive to do just whatever it takes?
Michelle: I think I just set my sights on a goal early on and I wasn’t willing to give up on that or be deterred from it – I was just – if a door was shut, I was gonna find a window to climb through or – if somebody got in my way – there’s always naysayers – there’s a ton of those, and in fact, some of the biggest naysayers were my family but I just figured out a way around them. Not be mean or step on anybody but just go around people like that and figure out how to still make it work for you.
– and when you talk about living in a tent – I did see a story about you moving to Winter Park (Colorado) and living in a tent for six months was it?
Michelle: Yeah, on and off, every summer I was pretty much in the tent for a period of time, obviously, you couldn’t do it in the winter (laughs). I come to find out now, I think it was illegal – I was on National Forest land – but at the time I didn’t know that that wasn’t kosher, I just found a place in the woods that I thought would be safe and away from anybody who might not be safe (laughs). Just kind of tried to hide in there for a little bit to have a – you know – to make things work – like I said, I was working three jobs.
I worked at Carver’s Bakery in town, and I worked at the movie theater and I worked at a t-shirt shop and I also went to high school – so I wanted to get good grades to make sure I could get into a good school. I knew Colorado School of Mines was one of the best chemical engineering schools in the world, really, and so I wanted to make sure I was gonna qualify to get in there cause that was another one of my goals. So I did good with school and studying and working and really being creative (laughs ) with limited finances I had at the time and made it work.
So how old were you when you did this?
Michelle: I moved to Winter Park when I was sixteen.
And did that require you to be emancipated from your parents?
Michelle: No – um – I just called my dad and said that I’m gonna go to school up here and I need you to sign this paper and he did so…(laughs)
(laughs) it sounds like they knew by then that they couldn’t get in your way?
Michelle: Uh yeah, maybe. I mean if people go through difficult times and they make decisions that they’re not proud of but they also are, you know, it can be so difficult for somebody when they’re unhappy that they just need to focus on themselves at that time. You know, I didn’t need to get in their way – so they just needed to figure it out and I needed to figure it out and we just needed to do our own thing.
Did you meet anybody on this journey that was sort of – kind of doing this same thing that you were?
Michelle: Oh (laughs) no.
I’m thinking yeah..
Michelle: And I didn’t really tell anybody. So none of the people I skied with knew. At least not at the time. Not until many, many years later when I felt comfortable talking about it but I never told anybody because I was embarrassed and I didn’t want it to work against me. I didn’t want them to think I wouldn’t be capable of skiing on World Cup because I had no family support at the time. And I was really thankful to have some wonderful, influential people outside of the family unit that I came across that just either said something at the right time that was inspirational that I needed to hear or showed me how life could be outside of what I had been living in.
Yeah, it’s important, isn’t it to sort of see that but it is pretty incredible that you found that drive and determination completely on your own. I am curious though, did you come from a family of high achievers, people that had expectations – I mean before they went through that difficult time – was there always that expectation that you were gonna do incredible things?
Michelle: (laughs) No, I don’t think so. My dad was an incredible athlete and he still is, he’s amazing. I mean, gosh, I can’t even keep up with him on the ski hill and I’m a two-time Olympian and he’s like sixty five (laughs). No, he’s an amazing athlete. I definitely got some of that from him. He’s also very competitive, so I think I definitely got some of that from him. My mother on the other hand is kind of like the total opposite. They’re like black and white. So she’s the total opposite, not athletic at all, definitely not very competitive – just the opposite of what I described.
Uh, huh – you often wonder because, I think a lot of people look at someone like you and sort of expect that there was someone that helped them along the way, and I’m sure there were people here and there but you just had it in your head that these were things that you were going to do…
And you went for it – luckily you had success but then also, you had, was it seven knee injuries that you had to make a comeback from?
Michelle: Yeah, it definitely wasn’t easy. It was definitely the long road as well. I mean I should have gone to the 98 Olympics and the 2002 Olympics and even, possibly the 94 Olympics – and I always got injured at a really bad time. I would be leading the World Cup and I’d blow out my knee the year before the Olympic games, so for awhile, I was just, oh my gosh, this isn’t going to happen (laughs) it just isn’t in the cards for me.
And then I was about to retire after the 2002 Olympics – I was leading the World Cup in 2001 and then I went down on the Deer Valley course and hurt my knee so bad it took three knee surgeries to fix. The doctor said you’ll never ski moguls competitively again etc., etc., so I was going to retire. I did some commentating at the 2002 Olympics and I was going to retire but I was lucky enough to meet a really, really amazing man in 2000 when I was rehabbing my other knee after surgery and he encouraged me to keep going. Together as a team – I think the difference was having some support, you know, instead of none. Before I had a lot of emotional and physical and loving support from him and I think that was the difference and that’s why I qualified for the 2006 Olympics as well as the 2010.
Coming back from those kinds of injuries probably almost pushed you over the edge but you had someone then at that right time that you did meet. And you must have opened yourself up to that as well.
Michelle: Yes, a very ambitious determined girl traveling the world skiing and going to the Colorado School of Mines whenever I had time so I was very busy, so – and also, there aren’t many men that want to put up with a girl who’s traveling all over the world (laughs) – it sort of takes a quiet confidence that I was lucky he really had.
Right. So you completed your degree while you were also going after these other goals and continuing to ski?
Michelle: Yeah, and that leads into what I do now. So I’ve been a chemical engineer and perfumer for eight years and I have my own line of all natural perfume and body products as well as a spa I own (Voila) in downtown Denver.
And how did you decide on a chemical engineering degree? But it wasn’t only chemical engineering – wasn’t it also petroleum engineering and something else here – and how did that turn into a perfume entrepreneurship?
Michelle: Well (laughs) I specialized in petroleum and refining and I tell people I still refine oil – just the essential kind – a different type of oil. And when I was skiing on World Cup, the sport’s psychologist said make sure you cover all five of your senses when you visualize – hear it, taste it, touch it, sense it, smell it – I could do all five but I had no idea what it smelled like to ski well.
So I thought I’ll find a fragrance that’s for skiing – it’ll be my scent of competition. Only I was highly dissatisfied with commercial blends and they would often give me a headache, they’d sometimes burn my nose, they’d be gone within an hour – so I thought I’d apply my background and make my own. So that’s how it all started way back when and really evolved into so much more. It’s funny, since I was five I wanted to become a chemical engineer and compete in the Olympics but I never said I wanted to be a perfumer or have my own product line but doing those other two things, the skiing and the engineering led me directly to where I am and – I just know this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.
– when you talk about visualizing your journey, visualizing your perfect run – can you tell me a little bit about how that works? Because obviously you use that in many facets of your life and that’s how it got you to this place. Can you just tell me a little bit about how that works for you?
Michelle: For me it’s been so important. Nothing can come to fruition that I’ve dreamed of until I could clearly visualize it. Even with the incredible building that I have now in downtown Denver, I really visualized every single aspect of it before it came to fruition. If you see it, and knowing where I’ve been, it seems like a radical miracle (laughs) that I was able to obtain it.
But visualization has always been a really important part of my life. On World Cup, I would impress all of the other coaches and athletes because I wouldn’t be able to make it down the course at all, in the five days prior to the competition while we trained on the course – I mean I was like – I was a mess, I was falling, there was just no way to make it off the top – I couldn’t do it – everything I tried – but it never failed when it came to competition day I would just get up to the top and visualize it and visualize it into fruition – and when I stepped into the course for the competition run I always nailed it. So I skied in over 100 World Cups and I only had three runs in finals where I didn’t ski the way I wanted to.
So how did you learn this skill and what would you say to other people that want to learn this skill? Because I do think it’s absolutely important.
Yeah, I do think it’s really important. I also think covering all your senses is important. I mean you think of a professional athlete or even any sort of professional who wants to nail a presentation or some sort of sale or whatever it is – we’re always looking for the edge. Especially when you’re an elite athlete,the little-ist thing makes the biggest difference. Athletes are always trying to invoke the zone. The memory and emotion of skiing perfectly or performing perfectly in whatever it may be. And we try to invoke that by listening to a certain type of music. We all have a competition playlist on our Ipod. You know we try to listen to get into that emotion and feeling of skiing perfectly. We do a ton of visualization. We wear our lucky socks for a certain type of feel. But we are almost always overlooking our sense of smell when that’s the sense that is directly related to the part of the brain we’re trying to tap into.
So the sense of smell is directly related to memory and emotion – so if I’m trying to invoke that feeling, that memory, that emotion of skiing perfectly why wouldn’t I use my sense of smell to tap into that? So that sort of helped me in the whole like invoking the zone and taking that visualization to another level by incorporating all the senses. But I do think visualization is super important. I first got into that in skating. My pro, back then, brought in a sport’s psychologist to teach us how to visualize at an early age so I think that’s just where that came from and I just developed on it through the years.
And so do you always go into that whenever you have a new idea because for some reason I know that your perfume company will sustain but I have an inkling that you may go into a few other things in your lifetime. (laughs) So I’m wondering if you have a daily meditation that you use to brainstorm or dream or think about things – and if you wanted to go into something new is that what you would do?
Michelle: Well – I wouldn’t say I have a daily meditation – I probably should have some times set aside for that but I don’t. I’ve never done that, my whole life I’ve loved to work out so I think in working out it spurs creative thoughts in my opinion. So that’s where I usually get new ideas. If I was going to do something new, yeah, I would visualize it inside and out and make it happen. If that answered your question, I’m not sure (laughs).
Yeah, it does. It almost sounds too easy but some of this stuff is exactly that – it’s just the practice of it and perfecting it. And so would you talk about some of the fragrances that you’ve developed and what you see them helping people with.
Michelle: Well, I’m so glad that you asked. I might not shut up if I start talking about perfume (laughs). We have six different energy bouquets and so what I’ve really been interested in over the last several years is doing research to back up the medicinal purposes of essential oils. Aromatherapy has been around for 3000 years although it’s been pushed aside by traditional medicine today because there’s a lack of real data or understanding on how it works. So I set out to bridge that gap in some way and I built a device to measure the electric energy of essential oils and then I was able to classify them into five different energy categories based on their electric energy. Then we looked at commonalities amongst the categories. So we looked at their physical properties, major chemical constituents and their social – emotional properties and found that there was consistency amongst the social – emotional properties.
So everything vibrating in the area of 170 kilojoules per mole were things like mango, coconut and magnolia. What we found were that they had similar properties social – emotional from the 3000 year old practice of aromatherapy saying that they do things like open the mind and release fear. On the opposite end of spectrum and about 300 kilojoules per mole I found things like bergamot, pomarosa, rose geranium and we found that their commonalities in their social – emotional area were properties that increase energy and are confidence building.
Likewise, we had a category in the middle that was balanced to the right of that, Imagination, and to the left of that, Focus, and so the line that I do is all based around that and that research. So we have a pure energy that vibrates in the area of 170 kilojoules per mole which we named Adventure – that’s the one that opens the mind and releases fear. Also, Confidence and Balance and Imagination and Focus and we also have Grounding.
So when someone comes into your salon – a lot of people do energy work – do you look at their energy – do you have them tell you what energy needs they have or do you evaluate what they need?
Michelle: That’s a great question – so I don’t consider myself an expert in that field – what I do offer is an extensive custom blending for people that I’ve done for many years now and so they would come in and fill out a seven page questionnaire that would help me determine their scent profile.
Based on that I would pull from my hundreds of essences and we would sit down and build their fragrance from the top to the middle to the bottom notes. They would leave and I would bring them three samples I think would be ideal for them based on our interview. Then, they pick up the samples, try them on their skin, see how they react with their own body chemistry, see how their significant other likes it, and then decide.
We put that in their own unique bottle and voila, they have a scent that’s truly their own. I compiled all that data and build a spreadsheet and built an algorithm out of it. We’re currently working on app where it’ll be similar questions and it’ll spit out an interview bouquet that’s right for them based on our data.
I love that! Is there anyone else that’s doing something like this? I’ve never heard of it down to such a scientific angle. I mean you hear of aromatherapy – but this is something else.
Michelle: I don’t like to do anything halfway.
(laughs) No, no apparently not. You know one scent that I saw you had it’s called Courage and the whole kind of idea of Chockalife is to find the courage to follow your passion and I love the idea of one being Courage – how did you develop that one?
Michelle: I think you might be referring to Confidence.
Yeah – Confidence.
Michelle: Same thing – Courage – Confidence.
That was the first one I developed and I actually did it just to be my scent for the 2006 Olympics. It was truly something I wanted to make for myself that was really high quality and that’s sort of what started the whole thing. So everything launched off of that.
I had put together essences that invoked energy, confidence, and focus based on aromatherapy findings. Then when I did the whole electric energy test it found that those specific essences were all within the area of 300 kilojoules per mole or higher. So it was really interesting and just seemed to correlate. Sort of proving that social – emotional properties of essential oils are directly tied to their electric energy.
I did take the research a step further and I sent them through a GCMS and I built a code out of minor chemical constituents that represent each category. So, basically saying a grouping of 20 minor chemical constituents and essential oils contributes to their electric energy which contributes to their social – emotional properties. —
I’m sorry if I’m talking your ear off about this – I could talk forever on it!
No, no (laughs) I was thinking – that is a true scientist. You are not taking anything for granted. You do it thoroughly and you do it to perfection. Which obviously, that’s what’s gotten you through these amazing episodes in your life. And, you know I read something on your bio that seems to encapsulate this. It says that your attitude in life is to live, love, be phenomenal and surround yourself with people who believe in the same. Don’t you think that’s important? You have to have this energy going on – you have to attract it, you have to cultivate it in order to make things happen.
Michelle: I do think that is really important. I think you get what you put out. If you put a good energy out you attract the same back in – and I’ve found that in the team of people that I work with now with Phia. I just have the greatest team around me. I’m so lucky and so blessed. We’re so excited about where we’re going and what we’ve done with the whole product line and the whole research on the electric energies and putting it all together.
Has this led into anything else, because you’re being so scientific. I’m wondering if you’re getting enquiries from the scientific field? Do you expect it to morph into something even more than this?
Michelle: That’s a good question, we’re looking at getting our paper published in a science journal this spring. But right now we’re trying to figure out if that’s the best direction to go because we might need to be a little bit more careful about trade secrets. So we’re just trying to figure out what the best path is – but we have people who are interested in the research for sure.
In fact, I was doing the first bit of research through the Colorado School of Mines in conjunction with a group of professors there and they were so interested in what I was doing they actually bought me the gas spectrometer for the second phase of the research. That’s nothing cheap, so I was really lucky. It’s a brand new device that I got to run all the essences through which has been so beneficial and intriguing for the next stage of the research that we’re doing.
Well, and I have to make this other comment about you – that apparently, during the Olympic games you were referred to by NBC commentators as “pure happiness.” So I’m not surprised that you have actually turned this into a physical form that you can share with other people. That’s pretty incredible. How many people get called that?
Michelle: (laughs) Yeah, we just figured out how to bottle it!
(laughs) That’s right, exactly.
Well, Michelle, I thank you so much for taking the time to talk about this amazing career of yours and I can’t wait to see what happens next. Thank you for all the information. If people want to find out more about your perfumes and what you do – where should they go?
Michelle: It’s called PhiaLab.com
Wonderful! Thank you.
Thank you so much for having me. It was my pleasure.