Alpine Young Guns: Marie-Michèle Gagnon
By Michael Mastarciyan
Marie-Michèle Gagnon is about as Canadian as a Canadian ski racer can be – I mean she grew up racing at Mont-Orignal – which translates to “Moose Mountain” in English and that’s about as Canadian-sounding as a ski resort name in Canada can get - EH!?!
A founding member of Canada’s Slalom Storm, the nickname she came up with good friend and teammate Anna Goodman for the Canadian Alpine Ski Team’s ladies tech squad, Gagnon has been racing on the World Cup circuit since 2009 and has managed to score top-30 points in nineteen of her forty-four starts. First and foremost a tech specialist, Gagnon has cracked the World Cup top-10 four times so far in her young career – twice in GS and twice in slalom. With a solid technical skill base, Gagnon has also begun dipping her toes in the speed pool. Buoyed by a very respectable 22nd place finish in the super-G at the FIS World Ski Championships last February at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, Gagnon says she’s excited to continue racing speed events but adds that her focus will continue to be on the technical disciplines.
Perfectly bilingual in both of Canada’s official languages, French and English, the 22-year-old skier from Lac Etchemin, Quebec currently calls two vastly different parts of Canada – both geographically and culturally – home. When she’s not busy racing on the World Cup tour, or training in South America or New Zealand, Gagnon splits her time between her home in Quebec in the eastern part of Canada and her off-season training base camp in Canmore, Alberta on the doorstep of the majestic Canadian Rockies.
“Mitch” as her friends call her took a break from dry-land training recently to answer a few questions….
MM: Mitch, you kind of have two Canadian homes right now - one in Quebec and one in Alberta, what's that like? Sounds like the ultimate kind of Canadian lifestyle, the best of both worlds?
MMG: I love having both for sure! Canmore is the ultimate mountain town and I love how close it is to any outdoor activity: mountain biking, hiking, climbing, backpacking and what not. Canmore has such a healthy community, you see people jogging or biking at all times of day. Even after a real hard day of training, I'll drive by some mountain bikers and I'll get all pumped up to ride…like now! What I truly miss about Lac-Etchemin though is my family and friends there. I also miss the warm summers sitting by my lake (not that Quebec has the hottest summers), but I mean Canmore is not yet feeling like summer in Mid-June. It’s quite standard to get snow here at this time of year. I definitely love having the opportunity to get a taste of both though!
MM: You seem like you are a real Bohemian at heart who loves life on the road and the adventures that come with it. Do you think you're lucky to have a job that lets you combine your love of travel and your love of ski racing?
MMG: Oh oui Monsieur! I always fully take advantage of the traveling side. When it is convenient, after a ski camp abroad, I will visit the surroundings - like after New Zealand, I went to Fiji, Cook Islands and toured the South Island of New Zealand in a camper. Next stop: Sydney! It is always very exciting, but I am also very serious about my sport so traveling as long as it fits in. I actually developed my love for travelling through my sport, I think I was always born a little adventurous and free-spirited, but the passion for traveling is much greater now!
MM: With Kelly VanderBeek and Larisa Yurkiw injured, and Genevieve Simard, Emily Brydon and Britt Janyk now retired, you are one of the Canadian team's veterans - but a such a young age - what does that feel like?
MMG: I really don't feel any pressure being in that situation. I have big goals in ski racing and I was lucky to have Emily, Britt and Gen as team leaders for a few years. I learned a lot from them. I actually enjoy being part of a group of young and keen athletes, we push each other very hard and we will grow as a strong team together. Also, even if the veterans on the women's side just retired, the men's team with successful racers such as Erik Guay has been truly inspiring. I hope one day to inspire my teammates as much as Erik has.
MM: You are starting to transition from tech to speed events, how’s that coming along?
MMG: I always loved racing speed when I was younger. A few years ago, I broke my leg and therefore wasn't allowed to ski speed the years following due to the risk involving having a metal rod inside my leg. All those years, I pushed to start doing speed again, but luckily the coaches were wiser than I and they had me develop the technical events first (the base of skiing). This year has been sort of a transition year, I got to race a few speed events, but mostly the goal was to ski and learn the hills…figure out the terrain and get comfortable with jumps. My boyfriend Travis (Ganong - of the US Ski Team) definitely has a contagious passion about speed and I caught it back again from him I think!
MM: How comfortable are you with high speeds? Can you see yourself skiing downhill also?
MMG: I love the speed and the adrenaline feeling when I stop in the finish line and look back and say yeah I did it!! I am definitely getting more used to the high speeds; I think it's like anything though, after not doing it for so many years, it takes a bit of time to re-adjust! I don't think it would be too intimidating ever though. Every time I was nervous before a run, the second I finished it, I wanted to go again! I could see that! I am really focusing on my strong events though for the years leading up to Sochi. Downhill is part of one of my strong events, which is combined!
MM: Your boyfriend Travis is a rising star who is a speed specialist has he given you any advice - is he a good source of information?
MMG: He is! Although he won't give me much advice unless I ask for it (I can be strong-headed…), he has helped me quite a bit on the speed side. Guys obviously know how to deal with high speeds and his personal experience often helps.
MM: Is Travis also a source of inspiration?
MMG: Travis is so passionate about skiing, he helps me remember why I love my sport so much. I can honestly tell you that I don't think anyone likes skiing as much as he does! When we drive around mountains, he will always pick out at least 5 chutes or bowls which he wants to ski one day.
MM: In a recent interview we did for FISALPINE.COM Travis said you lured him into a hot yoga class. How did that go? Was he good at it? Did he sweat a lot?
MMG: No question about the sweating part, it’s a lock that anyone who goes to hot yoga will sweat – a lot! He was actually pretty nervous about it at first since he is not super tolerant to heat, but he really enjoyed it! He can say I lured him into doing it, but I didn't have to insist much! Haha!
MM: You've been playing tour guide and host for Travis this off-season giving him a grand tour of "your" Canada. What have you shown him so far?
MMG: Actually, funny fact, Travis knows just as much about the Rockies as I do…I swear it seems like he's lived here his whole life. We tour together really because I am discovering at the same time as he is. The West of Canada is so different from the East.
We made a sweet road-trip across Banff National Park, all the way to Jasper! Beautiful drive! We also want to go to Fernie, my former summer training town when I was on the development team. Invermere and Revelstoke are also on our list. The many mountain bike trails around Canmore have also been fun to check out! I also took him back home to Quebec in the spring and he loved it. I even introduced him to maple syrup fabrication – he loved it!
MM: What's the most important thing you learned last season?
MMG: Consistency in training leads to more consistency in racing, Also that resting can be as important as training in times.
MM: What was the highlight of last season for you?
MMG: 5th place in St-Moritz and Erik Guay winning Downhill at World Champs!
MM: How has dry-land been going - you feeling good – any injuries you’re working on?
MMG: I feel so good this year. Living in Canmore also means that I have physio and trainer follow-ups regularly. My workouts are generally of a much higher quality; including lifting techniques and body awareness. Injury-free, Knock on wood! We have been adding fun challenges to our weekly training schedule. Once a week, we hit the obstacle course up the Nordic Center and there we practice all kinds of balance drills that include speed too!
Canada's Marie-Michele Gagnon poses for a photo while hiking near Canmore, Alberta in the majestic Canadian Rockies - Gagnon's second Canadian home!