Words By: Brigid Mander
Photos By: Robin O’Neill
Michelle Parker is certainly one of the most talented, versatile and influential female athletes the ski industry has ever had the fortune to claim. Yet, for being at the top of the game, the skier has a nonchalant way of making all the admiration for her skiing seem not about her at all. Parker more often than not redirects attention by thoughtfully, and delightfully, segueing into the myriad of other things she is passionate about: the outdoors, a healthy life and, especially, showing over telling other women and girls that being bold and driven to excel are admirable, attainable female traits. That quality is part of what gave rise to Originate, Parker’s extremely successful ski film series by Red Bull Media House and Reel Water Productions, now entering its third season of production.
Originate finds Parker various places around the globe, from France to British Columbia, or stateside, such as when she arrived in Jackson, Wyoming, during 2019’s epic snowfalls. The notable aspect, however, is not the snow, or even the locations, but rather that she runs the show on what story to tell, how to tell it, and who is part of it each time.
In her Wyoming adventure, as part of the Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy’s photo showdown, Parker teamed up with local snowboard pros Mark Carter and Alex Yoder for backcountry touring in the Teton Range, for both the shoot and her film series. “It was the story of collaborating, and of going out with skiers and snowboarders. I love that. And that kind of raw, rapid fire photography is different from polished film shoots, so we could tell the story behind the relationships, and what we do in the mountains,” she said.
An industrious, innately talented 32-year old, the Tahoe, California-based skier is known not just for the outstanding skiing that has earned her her own show, but for notable career highs and nearly career-ending lows. A sponsored skier since she was 15, she struggled to recover from injury and being effectively dismissed from the game in 2009 after landing on a rock while filming with Matchstick Productions (MSP).
“I lost all my sponsors, I had no money, and spent a year and half sitting on the bench,” says Parker. Cautious orthopedists tried to temper her hopes, citing the difficulty of complete recovery. “I didn’t doubt that I’d be back, I was pretty positive. I don’t think that other people were as confident as I was,” she laughs.
By late 2011, Parker felt ready to test herself. She struggled to gain a last ditch chance at filming again with MSP, which she secured. She proceeded to nail an award-winning segment, and by the next fall, she’d been picked up by a host of new sponsors, including Red Bull. Perhaps that triumph story would be enough for some, but Parker wasn’t about to be content with simply securing her own career.
It deeply bothered her that there was, and still is, a glaring hole in freeskiing media for showcasing female athletic drive and talent as star of the storyline, not a sidebar. She also understood the roots of the problem deeply. As a female skier, even one of the very top, she admits even she still had qualms about stepping out and asking for exactly what she wanted.
“I don’t know if it was ingrained in me or what, but for whatever reason, I definitely wasn’t outspoken enough about what I wanted to ski,” Parker told Tracy Ross for a Red Bull story in 2018. “Maybe I was slightly more passive, being the youngest, or being the only girl out there, but maybe [women] have these behaviors I think are taught from the rest of society,” she expounded in a recent phone call.
“Years ago, Elyse Saugstad made her own edit. It was gritty and amazing. She just took it on and did it herself. It was so inspiring, she just made it happen without being involved with a big production crew. That was huge for me,” Parker said. “When I was 16, I watched Sarah Burke fight for equal prize money, and Olympic inclusion. I didn’t even understand the gravity of what she fought for so graciously. It was so important for our sport.”
So when Parker found herself in a position to make a difference herself, she thought of a high profile, female-heavy but including men (such as last year’s Jackson segment) film series. “All the male athletes I’ve ever skied with are a huge part of why I am who I am in the mountains. My reality out there is not only female,” she said. “But there’s a demand for more high level female content. People love it. I knew I could use a big platform to bring on other women, and inspire them to create their own opportunities as well.” But Parker knew she’d have to convince companies there’s money in heavily promoting female athletes.
After collaborating with Squamish-based Reel Water Productions on the proposal, Parker took her idea to Red Bull, and the action sports media giant gave her the go-ahead. It was a huge opportunity. “Once they gave me Originate, I realized I didn’t know how to be a leader. It was a steep learning curve, to be out there, be in charge, and bring my proposals and ideas to the table. I learned to say unapologetically what I want – in business and in skiing.”
She handily succeeded in her goal of proving the market is there for more female content. “I know it has been one of Red Bull’s more successful TV shows overall, with viewership and engagement,” she said. “I get a lot of feedback from dads who have daughters, thanking me for making something that gives their daughter something pure and inspiring to look up to. That’s something that’s really important to me, the female role model.”
The ability to have such a positive influence through her skiing is something that Parker finds immensely gratifying, in addition to the fantastic opportunities to up the ante on her own skills and career. “You can let people know they can create their own path too, the opportunity is there,’ she said. “I think that’s actually more important than skiing accomplishments.”