Canada’s Marie-Michèle Gagnon, known by her friends as “Mitch,” came back from a nagging shoulder injury that she repeatedly suffered in 2014 and 2015 to re-establish herself among the world’s best skiers. The self-proclaimed all-rounder spends summers in Lake Tahoe, California, with her boyfriend, Travis Ganong, of the U.S. Ski Team. She talked with FIS about her adventures around the lake and her role within the Canadian ski team family.
First, let’s have a look back at your two previous seasons. You suffered a shoulder injury at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and had a tough 2014-15 season. Where did you find the motivation to keep fighting? What did you need to do to reach your top level again?
To best answer this question, I must put it in context. Following the shoulder injury in Sochi, we decided with the medical staff that surgery was not necessary. My shoulder passed all the tests and seemed really strong. Unfortunately, there was an incident in the gym after that fall. I dislocated my shoulder again, and from then on, I did it a few times more while skiing, mainly at World Cup competitions. Having an unstable shoulder isn’t something you feel all the time, so I decided to continue racing the rest of the season. I felt pretty confident it wouldn’t affect me one bit, but it did. I am no superwoman after all. It affected me mostly on the mental side. Our sport is a risk-taking one, and I soon realized that I wasn’t taking any risks in training to make sure that shoulder would stay in its socket. If you don’t practice high speed and tight lines in training, good luck just miraculously getting two of your best runs down on race day.
Anyhow, I was able to find motivation through the people close to me, my boyfriend, family, teammates and coaches. I also had a lot of encouragement through my competitors from various countries. We are lucky that ski racing is such a friendly sport. What was missing to reach my best level was a stable shoulder and a clear mind. I finally decided to get that shoulder fixed once and for all as soon as the races were over.
After two years, you found the key and got back on the podium. What did the third place in the slalom in Crans-Montana and the win in the alpine combined in Soldeu-El Tarter mean to you?
To be back on the podium after two years feels so relieving, exciting and grand. It means all the hard work I put in to get back to my best level paid off. It wasn’t always easy, spending over eight hours a day in the gym in Calgary, doing rehab as well as physio without forgetting to get in shape for the upcoming season. I made big sacrifices, but I totally forgot about it all when I stepped on that podium.
Your two career-wins are in alpine combined, and you led the season discipline rankings in 2014. What do you like most about this discipline? Why do you think alpine combined is not so popular anymore?
I have always considered myself an all-eventer, though my main focus has always been on the technical disciplines. It was the path I was told – and I still believe – is the one to follow to become a big threat for the overall one day. I actually made it on the Canadian team thanks to my super-G results. I have always loved the speed and adrenaline part of skiing. My slalom results are fairly strong and consistent. This, combined with a thirst for speed, has developed me into a somewhat alpine combined threat. I like this discipline because it requires a variety of different skills, as well as the ability to switch your brain from super-G or downhill mode to ninja slalom attack mode.
I think alpine combined isn’t as popular because it’s rare that skiers dedicate enough time to train all the disciplines. Alpine skiing is such a competitive sport that one must find their trade and spend long hours perfecting it before they can truly be dominant. Because of that, there is less competition in that event, though I believe it is no less difficult to win an alpine combined than any other discipline.
This season, you reached the top 15 in three disciplines for the first time – slalom, giant slalom and alpine combined. Only six ladies were able to do that in 2015-16. What’s the secret to becoming a good all-event skier and be consistent in several disciplines?
One answer: Perseverance! It might be cheesy, but it’s true. It took me over eight years of racing on the World Cup to get there and the fight isn’t over, not even close. I have much higher aspirations than ranking top 15 in three disciplines, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. I have also learned that consistency can be best achieved when one has a good plan and really sticks to it. It’s easy to get sidetracked after a couple of bad races and want to change things or train harder. You must find a plan that you are 100 percent committed to and fully trust.
The alpine combined is on the World Championship and the Olympic programs, so you have two serious medal chances in the upcoming seasons. Is this your focus, or are the slalom and giant slalom equally important?
Alpine combined, giant slalom and slalom are all equally important to me during the World Cup season as well as at the big events. They are all interconnected in a way. When I’m skiing well in giant slalom, my other disciplines all boost from it. Same goes for super-G. The more I train it, the more my giant slalom is improving.
Coming from Canada, you and your team spend most of the winter on the road together. From what we can see, you hold on together as a family. How important is this atmosphere for you? What’s your role within the team?
My team is my family on the road. My teammates are my sisters, my physio becomes sort of like a mom (or big sister… sorry, Sarah!). My coaches and technicians become my dads. We are all in this together: traveling the world, staying in hotels, celebrating Christmas and New Years away from home, celebrating the wins and helping each other through the bad days. As one of the oldest girls, my role on the team, together with Erin Mielzynksi, is to help guide the younger ones. It’s an individual sport, but we are always there to give advice. Most of my teammates would say my main role is to bug them in the morning with my quick-out-of-bed, turn-the-lights-on, break-out-dance-party energy… I will stop when I’m dead.
Your social media posts prove that you are a passionate outdoor sportswoman. What is your favorite activity in summer? Can you also calm down and relax, or is everything fast paced? What does your typical day look like?
My favorite activity in the summer is mountain biking-hiking-paddleboarding-skitouring-tennis-swimming… ever heard of it? It’s quite relaxing actually. But seriously, yes I can calm down. I’m actually really good at sleeping. I sleep a lot! I love spending my down times at the beach, in my hammock or hot tub! I am also taking a university class to change my mind and start using my brain a bit more.
A typical day is usually between 3-5 hours of workout with a mix of gym, cardio, field work or slackline. I try to get in 1-2 hours of my class or catching up on emails and such. I usually relax at the beach every day for an hour, too, but it depends. I don’t have a set routine. Having a house is also a lot of work. I end up spending a lot of my downtime taking care of all the things we should have been taught in school like how to file in for your taxes and how to order the perfect carpet.
Release courtesy of FIS