It's a rule generally acknowledged that, when someone dies, you remember them with nice, often vague words of praise. Some people are just so much larger-than-life, they don't fit that mold. American ski legend Bill Johnson, who died Thursday at the age of 55, was one of them.
"He was such a cocky bastard, it was awesome," said U.S. downhill racer Marco Sullivan, who overlapped with Johnson on the U.S. Ski Team in 2001. "You see why, in his day, he was so amazing—because he had that kind of attitude. To me, that embodies a downhiller. You know you're going for some of the hardest slopes in the world, and you have to be confident in yourself and in your skills. And he had that."
Johnson was the "bad boy" of U.S. racing: a guy who not only had attitude on the slope but off, getting in trouble with the law at 17 for stealing cars and breaking into houses. Famously, the judge gave him the option of college or prison. He chose college, racing at Mission Ridge, Washington.
At the age of 23, in just his second year on the World Cup circuit, Johnson won the 1984 downhill in Wengen, Switzerland. A month later, he burnished that gold with notoriety by boasting that he'd win the Sarajevo Olympics downhill, too. To everyone's surprise and his competitors' annoyance, he was right—becoming the first American to win Olympic gold in alpine skiing. He followed it up with World Cup wins in Whistler and Aspen.
"He was a true Viking in U.S. skiing," said Ted Ligety from the races at Kitzbühel this weekend. "It's always tough to lose somebody who was such an inspiration for American ski racing."
After several injuries, Johnson retired. And then, with the 2002 Olympics coming up in Salt Lake City—and in an apparent bid to win back his ex-wife—Johnson decided to mount a comeback. (That's also when he got his iconic tattoo, "Ski to Die", inked onto his arm).
At the time, then-21-year-old Sullivan had just joined the U.S. Ski Team, specializing, like Johnson, in the speed events. Sullivan, who with fellow U.S. racer Steve Nyman made a video for Johnson for his 55th birthday this past spring, remembered how Johnson hadn't gone soft over the years.
"He was just like 'Yeah, you kids, I'm going to kick your ass.' At that point, he wasn't that fast—but he still had that badass attitude," said Sullivan, laughing. "We were all like, whoa."
“He was a legend and a wild dude,” U.S. downhill star Daron Rahlves wrote in an email from the road. “Confident and skied like it.”
But in March 2001, Johnson crashed in the downhill of the national championships in Montana, incurring a traumatic brain injury. He was in a coma for three weeks and had to relearn how to talk and walk.
"I knew him after his injury. I never knew him before," said Andrew Weibrecht, who came in second at the Hahnenkamm super-G this weekend. "But he's part of our heritage as the American downhiller team. He was the forebearer of Tommy Moe, A.J. Kitt, Kyle Rasmussen. Those guys really opened the door for Bode [Miller], Daron [Rahlves]—who drove us as kids. So it’s a big part of our history, and that’s not gone. He'll always be remembered."
Although Johnson had improved enough to even go back to recreational skiing, his health deteriorated with a series of strokes in recent years. He was in an assisted-living facility in Gresham, Oregon, when he passed away last week.
"Hearing that, it's sad. What he would really appreciate is if we threw down here. Like Andrew did yesterday," said Nyman in the finish of the Hahnenkamm downhill on Saturday, referring to Weibrecht. "I tried," Nyman added with a laugh. (Although Nyman was in the lead at the top of the course when he came down in 11th position, he crashed out and didn't finish).
"Bill Johnson was a huge inspiration to almost all of us that are in this family right now. In some way or another, he inspired us," said Sasha Rearick, the head coach of the U.S. team.
But U.S. downhiller Travis Ganong may have put it most simply. “He’s a legend,” said Ganong. “He put skiing on the map in the U.S.”
Marquee Photo: Lori Adamski-Peek