Outspoken, confident, and groundbreaking 1984 Olympic downhill gold medalist Bill Johnson passed away yesterday in an assisted living facility in Gresham, Oregon, the U.S. Ski Team announced. Johnson, who was 55, had suffered a series of strokes and had been in long decline.
Johnson was famous not just for becoming the first American to win gold in the Olympic downhill, but also for predicting that he would do so. In 1984, at age 23, the American nabbed the Lauberhorn downhill in Wengen, Switzerland, then claimed he would do the same in the Sarajevo Olympic event, irritating his European rivals, who knew that no American had ever finished higher than fifth. Racing legend Franz Klammer famously called him a “nose picker.” But he backed up his prediction and went on to beat Peter Müller by .27 seconds (see video, below).
Lots of people “related to Billy—that brash, throw-it-in-your-face type attitude,” said Phil Mahre, who won the Olympic slalom in 1984. “When you tell people you’re going to go do something and then you go out and back it up like in Sarajevo, it’s pretty impressive.”
As a teenager, Johnson was on a path to anything but success. After being caught stealing a car, a judge gave him the option of enrolling a full-time ski academy or going to jail for six months. It was an easy choice, and Johnson soon found himself at Mission Ridge Ski Academy in Washington.
He won a total of four races in 1984, but a series of knee and back injuries and scuffles with the ski team derailed his racing career. His personal life was also tumultuous. His 13-month-old son, Ryan, drowned in a hot tub in 1991. Ten years later, he was divorced, bankrupt, and living in an RV. In 2001, then 40, he attempted a comeback in advance of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, but crashed during a run at the U.S. nationals at Big Mountain in Montana, biting off his tongue and suffering a traumatic injury to the left side of his brain that left him near death and in a coma for three weeks. Although he learned to walk, talk, and ski recreationally again, he never fully recovered.
“He was definitely a pioneer — first American to win an Olympic downhill gold medal,” racer Lindsey Vonn told the Associated Press. “For Americans, definitely a legend in the sport.”