Olympic Skier Michelle Roark Invents Scent for Champions
The Wall Street Journal
Can Perfume Make You a Winner? A Top Freestyle Skier—Also a Chemist—Invents a Scent for Champions
World-class athletes crave routine. Baseball’s Wade Boggs ate chicken before every game. Swimmer Michael Phelps blasts hip-hop in his earbuds before races. Others have a lucky shirt or pair of socks that feel right on their bodies, and nearly all of them watch video of previous events to help visualize a peak performance.
Few bother with smell.
Michelle Roark, the 2009 U.S. freestyle skiing champion, wants to change that. Ms. Roark, who is two classes short of a chemical engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines, is convinced that the scent from a perfume blend that she developed and calls “Confidence” is as important to her success as a good night’s sleep. Before competing, she douses her neck-warmer in the natural fragrance and spritzes it on the back of her neck and behind her ears.
“It’s scientifically proven that smell is closest to our emotions and our memories,” Ms. Roark said during an interview this week from Switzerland, where she is training for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. “Why shouldn’t we use it?”
Like most Olympic athletes, Roark—who is, at 35, a senior citizen by skiing standards— can’t support herself solely through sports. So when she’s not on the slopes, she can usually be found in a Denver lab mixing essential oils for her fledgling fragrance line, Phi-nomenal.
Leaning on her academic background in petroleum engineering—”I’m refining different kinds of oils now,” she jokes— Roark now sells six natural scents, all of them blends of essential oils and named for the singular emotional reactions they will inspire—Confidence, Focus, Balance, Adventure, Imagination and what she calls Real, which grounds users in the moment.
Roark mixes all of the potions herself at her lab in Denver. She bases the ratios of the oils in her blends on the “Golden Ratio,” also known as the phi, or the number 1.618. Approximations of this proportion appear both in nature, such as in the length of the stems of plants and DNA strands, and as the basis for some of the most treasured works of art and architecture, from the Parthenon to Salvador Dali’s “The Sacrament of the Last Supper.”
“It’s not just mumbo-jumbo,” said Ms. Roark, who has a salon/spa and perfumery set to open in December. “There is a science behind it.”
Roark, who grew up in Denver, has spent a lifetime turning lemons into lemonade. A top competitive figure skater as a child, she had to give up the sport at 15 because her family could no longer afford the lessons. She switched to skiing, which required little more than a youth season pass to the nearby Winter Park ski area. A year later she made the U.S. team, and in her 20s she once held down three jobs and slept in a tent to help support her skiing career.
Roark says the idea that she could harness the power of smell to conjure confidence and bring about victory in sports first came to her in 2005 while working with the sports psychologist Karen Cogan, who counsels several members of the U.S. freestyle ski team.
Freestyle skiing encompasses aerial acrobatics and lightning-fast runs down steep terrain covered with boulder-sized bumps, known as moguls, demanding an intense level of confidence and commitment to the task. To hesitate even slightly during 360-degree twists and flips on skis is to invite catastrophe. To build confidence, Cogan encouraged Roark to use all five of her senses, including a scent she favored, to enter the kind of flow state where she could sense the onset of a perfect run down a 750-foot slope of moguls.
“I had no idea what it smelled like to ski well,” she said.