A bumpy journey leads to the Alps

The accomplishments of a lifetime will forever outweigh the riches of a gold medal for Michelle Roark.

Published February 11, 2006

SAUZE d'OULX, Italy - The triumph was not in her score, for she did not finish within reach of medals or glory.

Her imprint will not be made in Olympic history books, for her moment has passed and her name soon will be forgotten.

No, for Michelle Roark, the reward was not her 18th-place finish in the Olympic moguls Saturday evening. It was in the journey that brought her here.

Half a lifetime ago, she was a homeless 16-year-old in Denver. Too young to be alone, and too stubborn to know better. Today, she is a 31-year-old rookie Olympian. Too old for a new start, and still too stubborn to know better.

"Once she makes up her mind, she's determined that's what she's going to do," her father, Mike Roark, said. "She has to be free to do it her way."

In a sense, her sport has been her metaphor. A course of unending bumps. A slippery downhill slope. And an opportunity to soar when the time is right.

This is how she ended up at the top of a mountain in the Alps on the first day of the Olympics, looking below at a world of possibilities.

"Heaven, it was like looking at heaven," Michelle Roark said. "It's been a long, lifetime dream to be here. I get emotional even thinking about it."

The dream is likely over. At her age, the chances of her making another Olympic team are remote. But that's okay. The accomplishments of a lifetime will forever outweigh the riches of a gold medal.

You see, the little girl who grew up dreaming of being an Olympic figure skater never had it easy. Nor did she take the comfortable path.

Her parents divorced when she was 15, and Roark's world was ripped part. A figure skater since she was 5 - she performed in some of the same junior camps as future Olympian Nancy Kerrigan - Roark had to give up the sport around that time because of the high cost of training.

"I was devastated when I had to quit," she said.

Soon after her parents divorced, Roark decided she could no longer live with her mother. A year later, she felt the same way about her father.

Roark says her mother threw her out of the house. Other family members say the truth is not so dramatic. Either way, she was on her own at 16.

"She never really fit in. Not the way she wanted things," her younger brother Matt said. "That's why she went and did her own thing. She was never kicked out of the house. That's not the way I saw it. She could have stayed with (her father) or stayed with my mom, but she wasn't happy there. She just wanted to do her own thing, and she went and did that.

"That's how she's always been."

She was headstrong. Or maybe you would call it foolhardy. Either way, she quickly learned to fend for herself.

Roark moved into an acquaintance's empty cabin and stayed there nearly two years, until the place was sold and she found herself back on the streets.

She set up a tent near a national forest and lived there for months at a time in the summer. When the weather would get cold or wet, she would crash with friends or bundle up in the back seat of her car.

In the meantime, she managed to finish high school, begin college and scheme to keep her skiing career alive. When working at a bakery, she would collect leftovers to bribe security guards into letting her into a health club for middle-of-the-night workouts. She used similar scams for ski passes.

She worked an endless stream of jobs, constantly juggling commitments and trying to save money. By 19, she had made her debut on the national team, although she was not on U.S. Skiing's "A" roster. That meant her expenses were not paid. So Roark would get a loan from the USOC during the season and then spend all summer working to pay off the debt.

Along the way, she suffered a string of knee injuries, missing parts of five seasons and undergoing surgery six times.

"It was difficult," said her father, who came to Italy to watch her compete. "God, anybody who is a parent knows it's real tough to try to hold on to your child when they decide they're going to do something. "Especially with someone as focused as Michelle. You want to hold the reigns with them, but then they'll just pull harder. It was a very difficult time. Very difficult."

Those days seem far away. Roark is married now and has purchased her own home. She is studying to be a chemical engineer and has already patented a fragrance (phinomenal.com), set for a March launch.

And Saturday, she lived a dream she had refused to let slip away. While her more heralded teammates Hannah Kearney and Shannon Bahrke struggled in morning qualifying, Roark was in fourth place going into the finals.

An Olympic medal appeared within reach when she lined up for her final run, but Roark had a slip on her first jump and never quite recovered.

"I think I went for it a little too much. I went a little too big ... and missed my landing," Roark said. "But I went for it. I'd rather go for it and be last than not go for it and be fourth. It's all or nothing for me."

It's been that way for quite some time. Roark has never lived by convention and has never accepted less than what she wanted.

Most come to the Olympics hoping for the ride of their life.

For Roark, her greatest ride was just getting here.