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Against All Odds: Michelle Sauer & Jose Portes

How one Brooklyn couple survived a near-fatal motorcycle crash, built a skateboarding business, and coasted off into the sunset


In traditional skateboarding slang, to “bail” is when you jump off your board right before falling.

On the night they met in 2002, after talking for hours at pro skateboarder Jefferson Pang’s Cinco de Mayo party, one could say that Michelle Sauer bailed before falling for Jose Portes.

“We were out in front talking forever and then Jose offered to give me a ride home,” she recalled. There was just one problem: “I lived across the street! I didn't want to tell him and give up too much information too quick.”

Word would travel soon enough. Sauer and Portes worked in different areas of the same industry—she as a designer of skateboarding and snowboarding clothes, he as an instructor in the two sports—and had many mutual friends. Long after the party, both continued to inquire about one another until finally working up to a date in person.

After that, things moved quickly, with Portes showing early signs of wanting to nurture Sauer.

“For Christmas that year he gave me a dog because he thought that I worked too much and I needed a reason to come home,” remembered Sauer, fondly.

Within a year the couple had moved in together and were just striking the balance between work demands and domestic responsibilities, when life tested their bond by throwing another obstacle in their path.

While heading home from Father's Day brunch in 2003 on Portes’ motorcycle, the pair was struck by an 18-wheeler on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The disastrous crash left both severely injured and physically incapacitated for more than three months.

"Before that, I would ride in on my motorcycle and park it in the living room, y'know?" said Portes. "It was all about skateboarding, snowboarding, and surfing—just, a very fast life. And I think life basically told us we needed to slow down. It forced us to reevaluate.”

With one uninjured hand each, the pair relied on one another completely, Sauer said. Every task during the recovery period was an exercise in learning how to trust. 

“He would hold the knife and I would hold the onion,” she said. “And everything would be a three-hour process."

But there were funny moments too, Portes recalled.

One particularly memorable mission occurred two months in to their recovery, when the pair determinedly set out to see Cirque de Soleil on Randall’s Island.

With bandages covering patches of road rash, Portes suffering spleen damage and Sauer donning a medical boot, the pair hobbled out to the show and would lightly swat each other's free hand in order to clap between acts.

"We realized, ‘wow, this is what it could be like when we're 90,’" Sauer said. “Before the accident, I knew he was different and special, but I was also very focused on my career. In a way, it helped us grow.” 

In 2007, having already survived more than most, the couple took the remaining money from their settlement and created HOMAGE, a skateboarding and snowboarding gear shop in Boerum Hill, near their home.

“In the midst of us building out the store, my father made a trip out to New York to escape a bit of the Paris Hilton drama,” said Sauer, who is originally from Los Angeles. [Judge Michael T. Sauer is widely known for sentencing Hilton to 45 days in jail for violating probation.]

During that time, Portes privately asked her father for permission to marry. But it would take four more years for him to officially ask Sauer, herself.

“To me, I already felt like I had asked because I had given her my mom’s ring,” said Portes, whose mother passed away when he was 7 years old. “But women like to actually hear the words, ‘Will you marry me?’ That took me a while.”

In the meantime, the couple grew their business and worked on their life as a family with two dogs.

"We both know what we want,” said Portes, whose father came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic as an illegal immigrant. Upon threat of deportation, Portes Senior served in the American military during Vietnam in exchange for citizenship and, as a result, Jose moved a lot growing up.

“[My father] had a spirit of adventure, but I always wanted stability,” said Portes. “Michelle is perfect because while she has a bit of that spirit too, she is much more focused. She believes in tradition and honor. These are things that I care about but don’t see a lot of in the world.”

In keeping with family traditions, the couple will marry on Friday, October 12 in an intimate ceremony at The St. Brendan’s Church in Los Angeles, where Sauer’s father, sister and she were baptized, made first communion and confirmations. The reception will be at the Smog Shoppe in Los Angeles, a repurposed eco friendly event space.

As the couple prepared for the big day, Sauer reflected on the 10-year courtship with the man she calls her best friend and biggest cheerleader, saying that their relationship had already outlasted some people’s marriages and that she couldn’t picture her future with anyone else.

Her groom-to-be summed things up simply, in skater parlance.

“I’m stoked,” he said. “I count my lucky stars every day.”

Jay Nitti October 12, 2012 at 01:25 PM
What a beautiful story! I hope they live happily ever after.
Jenny October 12, 2012 at 03:23 PM
really lovely story....
Danielle October 12, 2012 at 07:16 PM
Great story. ;-)
Nacho October 13, 2012 at 02:39 AM
I love reading love stories. Congrats!

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