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Countdown to Vancouver

Freewheeling spirit

Snowboarder Gorgone knows one speed: fast

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / December 4, 2009

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Excusing herself from hostess duties at the Cactus Club, Michelle Gorgone guided a US Anti-Doping Agency drug tester past the bar area and into a single-stall bathroom. The pair emerged after 20 minutes. Gorgone signed a stack of papers and went back to work at the Boylston Street establishment as if nothing unusual had happened. But she couldn’t escape the suspicious stares of co-workers.

“You’re sketchy,’’ said a fellow hostess.

“Why?’’ said Gorgone. “I’m not on parole.’’

“Well, that’s what I thought,’’ said the other hostess.

“I’m a snowboarder,’’ said Gorgone. “I get drug tested. Blah blah blah.’’

Despite a racing style that her father Paul describes as “down and dirty’’ and a big, bold personality with little self-editing, Gorgone doesn’t like to brag about her snowboarding accomplishments. She prefers the relative anonymity and break from the competitive grind she finds in Boston.

She becomes embarrassed when friends mention her Olympic debut at the 2006 Turin Games, though it’s a great conversation starter at local bars. Until Gorgone went looking for her lost commemorative 2006 Olympic ring at her gym, the staff at the Boston Sports Club branch near Copley Square didn’t know she was an Olympian in training.

Blah blah blah? Far from it.

At 26, Gorgone is one of the world’s best in women’s parallel giant slalom, preparing to compete in her second Olympics this winter in Vancouver. Qualification for the US team is based on individual results at selection events contested as part of the 2009-10 FIS Snowboard World Cup. The first World Cup event set for Sunday in Italy was canceled because of poor snow and will be rescheduled. The second scheduled competition is Dec. 17 in Telluride, Colo. Three more World Cup events follow in January.

Gorgone placed eighth in last season’s World Cup overall standings and earned a pair of top-three finishes in individual events. Gorgone opened this season with a win at Copper Mountain in Colorado. The event was part of the 2009-10 Race to the Cup series and served as preparation for the Olympic qualifying process.

“The best-case scenario would be a gold medal, but I’m trying to take one step at a time,’’ said Gorgone. “When I’m racing, I’ll be thinking about round No. 3 when I’m working on round No. 1. Right now, I’m just working on making it.

“I have a fifth gear that some of the other girls don’t have. When I want it and I’m pushed to do something, I can push it into that fifth gear.

“But sometimes it’s a weakness, too. Sometimes it’s not there. Or, sometimes I’ll come right out in fifth gear and blow up and end up in the woods. I’m just not the most consistent person. My coaches will always be like, ‘Ride in third gear. It’s OK. You don’t have to ride in fifth gear all the time. Be a little more strategic.’ ’’

A former coach once said Gorgone possesses the “crazy gene’’ needed to be a top racer. Sometimes it translates into jumping off bridges and cliffs for fun. Sometimes it means a spur-of-the-moment decision to audition for “American Idol’’ (with an unfortunate voice-cracking performance). Sometimes it leads to crashes in competitions she has a good chance to win.

When US teammates matched racers with car models, Gorgone said it was decided she would be “a Lamborghini with bumpers all the way around and a shorted-out horn.’’ A French racer nicknamed Gorgone “The Plane’’ for the way she often flies, almost out of control, over knolls.

“I’ve always thought she was going to do something great,’’ said Bill Enos, who coached Gorgone at Waterville Valley Academy in New Hampshire. “I’d love to see her win a gold medal. She’s worked really hard.

“I don’t think there’s a woman out there who can beat her, and there’s probably not a whole lot of guys that can beat her, either, if she lays down a run. What I love about her is, if she wins a gold medal, then, ‘Yahoo!’ If not, ‘Who cares?’ She kills it. She rips.’’

Give her the city life
Jaywalking down Boylston Street, Gorgone dodges cars and laughs. She is at home on this busy stretch of Boston real estate, more comfortable amid the city’s hustle and bustle than traveling from one sleepy European ski town to the next.

Her parents, friends, and coaches cannot remember a time when Gorgone moved at anything less than full speed. And she couldn’t imagine returning home between overseas competitions to a training center in some slow-paced American ski town.

So, in an unusual move for a Winter Olympic athlete, Gorgone purchased a condo in the Back Bay and settled in Boston. That has often meant training on her own during the offseason and lugging her snowboard equipment up three flights of stairs upon returning from Europe. They are tradeoffs Gorgone gladly accepts in exchange for city living.

On a tour of her neighborhood, she excitedly points out the best place to find 15-cent wings, talks about frequent trips to Espresso Royale for coffee, and lists beaches in the Boston area and near her parents’ East Dennis home as favorite places to hang out with friends.

She stops by the Boston Sports Club and shows how she adapts her workouts to the equipment there. Grabbing a medicine ball, she hops onto a platform and does deep, single-leg squats with impressive ease.

“I wouldn’t have snowboarded as long if I lived at a training center,’’ said Gorgone, who grew up in Sudbury and attended ski academies at Waterville Valley and in Steamboat Springs, Colo. “It was never really an option to live at a training center because I wouldn’t have been myself. I would have been a competing snowboarding robot that lived and trained at the training center and went snowboarding.

“That’s not how I am. I have to be myself. I sing and dance at the start right before I pull out of the gate. It’s just who I am. I only know how to snowboard one way.’’

Picking up steam
When racing, Gorgone folds her 5-foot-2 3/4-inch, 150-pound frame into a compact, aerodynamic position, riding closer to the ground than most of her competitors. She uses her considerable lower-body and core strength to carve turns and generate speed. Many of the same fundamentals Gorgone learned at Waterville Valley are evident in the way she attacks courses today.

While Enos remembers Gorgone as a natural at parallel giant slalom, winter sports weren’t always an obvious fit. As a skier, Gorgone preferred hot chocolate in ski lodges over long days on the slopes. Without any idea how to maneuver a board, she cried her way down the mountain on her first snowboarding run.

But by the time Gorgone reached her teens, she was heading to Nashoba Valley every day after school to snowboard, fueled by a desire to go faster. Shortly thereafter, she went to Waterville Valley Academy and received an education in competitive snowboard racing. In 2003, she made her first US Snowboarding team and went on the World Cup tour full-time.

“She’s never had any fears,’’ said her father, Paul. “And I don’t think there’s a girl out there who competes to her style or a girl out there who competes to her speed. She’s a driven woman.

“But a lot of different things can come into play with her, so many different things can get her down. If she can stay positive and stay on top of her game, I honestly feel nobody’s going to touch her.’’

In parallel giant slalom, competitors make two qualification runs - one on a red course and one on a blue course. Racers with the top 16 cumulative times advance to the finals. The finals consist of six rounds each, with two head-to-head races between competitors. The fastest racers from each round advance until a winner is determined.

Given the format, one bad decision, one failure to account for a change in terrain can be costly. Gorgone’s medal chances depend on her finding the right balance between speed, fearlessness, and competitive discipline. To do that during Olympic competition, Gorgone might need to rein in her no-holds-barred approach.

When asked to describe her style, Gorgone offered two words: “Fast. Stupid.’’

She’s trying to become a smarter, more consistent racer between now and Vancouver.

“I’m not the most serious,’’ said Gorgone, who jokes about how her tattoo of the Olympic rings looks like Froot Loops. “I can’t get in the start and be, like, ‘Er, eye on the prize.’ I’m kind of always goofing around. It helps me sometimes, but I think sometimes it hurts me also. So, if I keep my head straight . . .’’

Her voice trails off, but she knows exactly how she wants the sentence to end. She smiles and resumes her quick, traffic-taunting walk down Boylston Street.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.