Bill Johnson is the first American male to win an Olympic gold medal in alpine skiing.
In January 1984, 23-year-old Bill Johnson burst onto the international ski scene, winning the famed Lauberhorn downhill event in Wengen, Switzerland. It was the first World Cup downhill victory by an American male in the 54-year history of the storied event. The following month, he shocked the world by winning the gold medal in downhill at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, then backed it up with World Cup wins in Whistler, B.C. and Aspen later that season. Seemingly out of nowhere, Johnson suddenly rose to the top of his sport while becoming the most legendary alpine skier in U.S. history. Three decades later, the sport would take his life.
William Dean Johnson was born in the Canoga Park neighborhood of Los Angeles on this date in 1960. His family moved to Boise, Idaho, where he learned to ski at Bogus Basin at seven. After moving to Oregon, Johnson attended Sandy Union High School and fell in with a tough crowd. At 17, he was stealing cars and burglarizing houses. A sympathetic judge told Johnson he could either spend six months in jail or attend the Mission Ridge Ski Academy in central Washington. Johnson chose the latter.
Determined to compete, Johnson drove around to ski races and slept in his car. He quickly started winning events and caught the attention of the U.S. Ski Team. In 1980, he earned the right to forerun the downhill course at the Lake Placid Olympics. Stubborn and independent, Johnson was kicked off the U.S. team in 1982 for refusing to run or lift weights. He headed for Europe.
In 1983, Johnson competed on—and dominated–the 1983 Europa Cup Tour, skiing’s top-tiered minor league. He made his World Cup debut that same season, finishing sixth in the downhill at St. Anton, Austria. The following year, he stunned the international skiing establishment.
The downhill is alpine skiing’s marquee event. Unlike slalom, giant slalom, super giant slalom, or combined events, which emphasize turning and technique, downhill is all about speed. Fearless and bold, world-class downhill racers exceed 80 miles per hour. Bill Johnson was a gravity-powered rocket. At the Alpine Training Center in Lake Placid, wind tunnel tests revealed that Johnson’s 5’9”, 170 pound frame—coupled with his aerodynamic tuck position—were nearly perfect for ski racing. What truly set him apart, however, was his brash, in-your-face-type attitude. Cocky, mouthy and arrogant, Johnson was despised by the European skiing establishment.
The men’s downhill competition at the 1984 Winter Olympics was scheduled to be held February 9. As snowstorms buried Mount Bjelasnica, race organizers were forced to postpone the event. As the snow fell, Johnson talked and talked. “I am going to win the gold medal, no question. I don’t even know why everyone else is here. Everyone else can fight for second.” The swaggering skier had become the Muhammad Ali of his sport.
Austrian great Franz Klammer, reigning World Cup champion and 1976 Olympic downhill gold medalist, dismissed Johnson as a “nasenbohrer” [nosepicker]. “Declaring victory before taking the start, in ski racing, just wasn’t done,” said Christin Cooper, giant slalom silver medalist for the U.S. women’s team. “And it hasn’t been done since.” On February 16—a full week later than scheduled—the downhill event got underway.
Beating Europe’s best at their own game, Johnson capitalized on his gliding prowess in the flat sections and blistered the bottom third of the course. “This is my course,” said Johnson. “I can go straight faster than anybody here.” Flying down the course with reckless abandon, Johnson posted a time of 1:45.59 to beat Peter Mueller of Switzerland by 0.27 seconds to win the gold medal. Klammer was tenth. Johnson had brashly predicted victory, then backed it up. “I put a lot of pressure on myself,” beamed the American. “If I had gotten second, I’d be a real bum.”
After winning gold, Bill Johnson was asked what it meant. “Millions. We’re talking millions.” He appeared on the cover of Sports Ilustrated with the headline, “Flat Out For Glory.” Upon returning home, Johnson was greeted by President Ronald Reagan at the White House. He had ushered in a new era for American ski racing, paving the way for future Olympic gold medalists Tommy Moe and Bode Miller. But fame and fortune were not to be for the first racer–male or female—from outside the Alps to win an Olympic downhill.
After the Sarajevo Games, Johnson was kicked off the U.S. Ski Team for fighting with the coaches. He retired from competitive skiing at 30 and fell on hard times. In 1991, his 17-month-old son drowned in a hot tub. In the early 90s, Johnson made money as a skiing ambassador, raced in celebrity downhill events, and performed odd jobs as a carpenter and electrician. By 1999, his wife had taken their two sons and left him. Johnson was broke, living in a trailer, and unemployed. He moved 11 times in 12 years.
In 2000–trying to win back his ex-wife and kids– Johnson decided to make a comeback and earn a spot on the 2002 U.S. Olympic team. Despite being ranked 404th in the world in downhill, Johnson was determined to return, going so far as having “Ski to Die” tattooed on his biceps. Eight days shy of his 41st birthday, he entered the national championships at Big Mountain in Montana.
Having improved steadily during his comeback, he was assigned bib number 34 in a field of 63 downhillers—middle of the pack. Johnson was hopeful, saying, “It would be the comeback of the millennium.” At the bottom of a run called Corkscrew, Johnson caught an edge and crashed at 60 miles per hour. His face slammed into the hard-packed snow and he careened into safety nets set up along the course. Johnson nearly bit off his tongue and was in a coma for three weeks. He was not expected to live, let alone ever walk again.
Bill Johnson had suffered a traumatic brain injury. He had to learn to walk, talk, and eat again. Nearly a decade of memories had been erased. Johnson was not the same. His speech was slow, the right side of his body was numb, and he lived with his mom for three years. He suffered a series of small strokes until he fell victim to a massive stroke in 2010, forcing him into a long-term care facility where his health continued to decline. Fifteen years after his accident, Mr. Johnson died at age 55 in Gresham, Oregon.