Olympic champion Bill Johnson passed away Thursday afternoon at the age of 55.
GRESHAM, OR (Jan. 21, 2016) – Olympic champion Bill Johnson, whose storybook 1984 season ushered in a new era for American ski racing, passed away Thursday at an assisted living facility outside Portland at the age of 55. His passing closed the final chapter in a tumultuous lifetime that saw him rise to the highest level in his sport.
Born in Los Angeles, Johnson grew up ski racing at Bogus Basin in Idaho, then moving on to Mt. Hood in Oregon as well as the racing program at Mission Ridge, WA.
At the age of 23, Johnson burst onto the World Cup scene in 1984, winning the storied Lauberhorn downhill in Wengen. It was the first American men’s World Cup downhill victory in the modern era. The next month, he backed it up with an Olympic gold in Sarajevo, then closed the season with wins in Whistler, BC and Aspen, CO.
He retired from competition in the late ‘80s after a series of injuries and personal setbacks. But with the impending 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, he staged a comeback. On March 22, 2001, he was critically injured in a crash at The Big Mountain near Whitefish, MT during the U.S. Alpine Championships. Near death, he remained in a coma for three weeks before regaining consciousness. While he did ski again after the accident, his racing career was over. In recent years, medical complications increased and he was confined to an assisted living facility.
Johnson’s Olympic gold punctuated a stellar Olympics for the U.S. Alpine Ski Team in Sarajevo, winning five medals including gold from Johnson, Deb Armstrong and Phil Mahre, silver for Christin Cooper and Steve Mahre. His accomplishments motivated an entire generation of American ski racers, with the team’s current success rooted in the achievements of that 1984 Olympic Team.
"As a teammate of Bill Johnson during a very successful period of U.S. Ski Team history, I had the utmost respect for his accomplishments as an athlete," said USSA President and CEO Tiger Shaw. "He established a benchmark for downhill ski racing in America and motivated generations of downhillers to come."
Bill Johnson's family is planning no services at Bill's request.
BILL JOHNSON MEMORIES AND TRIBUTES
Phil Mahre, 1984 Olympic gold, slalom Bill Johnson was cut from a different cloth. In many ways as athletes we're all the same, with one common goal - to be the best in our sport. Billy was a fighter and went about things his way. That toughness allowed him to reach heights in the skiing world that few will ever accomplish. It's also that fighting spirit that kept him alive after his accident, just to prove to the world he wasn't done yet.
My thoughts and prayers go out to his family. It's a sad day in the ski racing world.
Christin Cooper, 1984 Olympic silver, giant slalom Such a glorious, unlikely and eminently sad tale. The stuff of legend. What an enigmatic figure. A totally rare cat, especially in ski racing.
As a member of that Olympic Team in Sarajevo, I felt embarrassment and also pride over his brash proclamations that gold would be his.
We, the women’s team, felt almost protective of him, like… “Bill… seriously? You really want to be doing this?” Declaring victory before taking the start, in ski racing, just wasn’t done. And hasn’t been done since, has it? And it’s not like Bill started a trend. If you proclaim it, it will be so. Who has the nerve to defy such odds?
But Bill had always been maddeningly irrepressible. Day, night, in the Olympic Village, in your face!! He never let up. Can you imagine Bill, on that ride, at his peak, in the era of social media?
That 1984, he was riding a comet. His skis were rockets and he knew it. Snow conditions were perfect (mostly soft) for his loose style and touch and he just gleefully hung on for the ride, until his confidence grew to where he couldn’t be denied.
This is was what was so infuriating to his competitors, who were left to watch on in awe and disbelief. He was defying physics that year, and flouting convention. That’s what rubbed so many the wrong way. The unconventional is rare in our sport.
Bill believed he was destined for greatness. He spoke about it all the time. And in the end, he wasn’t wrong. I’m proud to have known him and to have been witness to one of the wildest, most unlikely, rides into history ever taken on skis.
The good, the bad and the ugly. That was Bill. And he proudly, even gracefully in the end, owned all of it. He gave us his irrepressible unapologetic, self. A rare gift indeed.
Tiger Shaw, CEO and President of USSA, 1984/1988 Olympian As a teammate of Bill Johnson during a very successful period of U.S. Ski Team history, I had the utmost respect for his accomplishments as an athlete. He established a benchmark for downhill ski racing in America and motivated generations of downhillers to come.
Andrew Weibrecht, 2010 Olympic bronze/2014 Olympic silver, super G He really jump started American downhill racing. In 1984 when Bill came and put down that fantastic run in Sarajevo, he really revitalized the sport and paved the way for guys like Tommy Moe, AJ Kit, and Kyle Rasmussen … and those guys paved the way for our generation. It’s really important to recognize where we have come from as a country in this sport, and Bill was a big part of that.
An inspiration & pioneer, Bill Johnson showed America what "perseverance" means.