Bill Johnson, the brash American who became the first U.S. skier to win an Olympic downhill title, died after a long illness, the U.S. ski team said Friday. He was 55.
Megan Harrod, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Alpine team, said Johnson died Thursday at an assisted living facility in Gresham, Oregon.
Johnson’s health had been on the decline for several years after a series of strokes.
Johnson won the downhill at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, the first American to capture gold in Alpine skiing’s marquee event. He was also the first American male to win an Olympic gold in any Alpine event.
He became an iconic figure to many Americans by predicting he would win Olympic gold.
“They related to Billy — that brash, throw-it-in-your-face type attitude,” Phil Mahre, who won the Olympic slalom in 1984, said in 2012. “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.”
Johnson tried to make a comeback ahead of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics at the age of 40, but crashed in a downhill training run in 2001 at the U.S. championships at The Big Mountain near Whitefish, Montana. He sustained a traumatic brain injury that erased nearly a decade of memories. He had to learn how to walk, talk and eat again.
Johnson made steady improvement over the years, even returning to the slopes for recreation. But his health deteriorated again because of strokes, and he spent his last years in the assisted living center near Portland.
“It’s really sad,” Lindsey Vonn, winner of the 2010 women’s Olympic downhill title, said Friday. “He’s had a rough couple of years and it’s been sad to watch him deteriorate like that. But you know when you’re in a state like that I think it’s a blessing sometimes. He was an incredible legend in our sport so I just hope he rests in peace and my condolences to his family.”
Johnson, who was born in Los Angeles, grew up racing at Bogus Basin, Idaho, and Mt. Hood, Oregon.
Caught stealing cars as a teenager, the judge gave him a choice: Attend ski school or head to jail. So he went to Mission Ridge Ski Academy in Washington, where he developed his talent.
Johnson established himself on the global scene when he won the Lauberhorn downhill in Wengen, Switzerland, in 1984 in his second year on the World Cup circuit.
A month later, Johnson went to Sarajevo and cockily predicted that he would win, annoying his European rivals. He came through, beating silver medalist Peter Mueller of Switzerland by 0.27 seconds.
“What he did that day was amazing at the time,” said Bill Marolt, former president and CEO of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. “In retrospect, it’s still amazing.”
Johnson won twice more on the World Cup circuit in 1984 in Aspen and Whistler, but never stepped on the podium again. He went through knee and back injuries that curtailed his career and prevented him from defending his title at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.
Vonn and Tommy Moe are the only other American skiers to win Olympic gold in downhill.
Vonn, who was competing in downhill training Friday ahead of a World Cup race in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, said Johnson was a trailblazer for American downhillers.
“He was definitely a pioneer — first American to win an Olympic downhill gold medal,” Vonn said. “So for sure, an inspiration and for Americans definitely a legend in the sport.”