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.
Last March, on his 55th birthday, friends and ski racers around the world reached out with tributes to one of the greatest downhillers of all time.
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.”