Ski racing’s Bad Boy is gone. Billy D. Johnson’s legacy, however, will live on a long, long time. In 1984, he joined a short list of great athletes: Babe Ruth, Joe Namath and Mohammed Ali (though we’re not that sure about Ruth), by predicting his success on the biggest of stages.
Importantly, he single-handedly taught a generation of American ski racers the importance of a good tuck.
Johnson, 55, finally succumbed after years struggling against the result of a brain injury sustained March 22, 2001 in a comeback pursuit. The 1984 Olympic gold medalist in downhill was taking the first steps toward a return when he crashed in downhill training for the U.S. National Championships at Big Mountain, Mont. He was in a coma for three weeks and never regained complete control of his body. A series of strokes further disabled him.
Johnson was the first American to capture an Olympic gold medal in downhill and the first U.S. male to win gold in any alpine skiing discipline. But it was the manner in which he approached the event that made him stand out.
“I own this course,” he said to all who might listen and said his win was certain. He had just a single World Cup victory to his name at the time and was going up against some of the best downhillers of history. The Europeans were incensed by his bravado. Franz Klammer called him a Nasenbohrer, a slang term for rookie that translates literally as “nose-picker.”
The Swiss had Peter Mueller (silver), Pirmin Zurbriggen (fourth) and Urs Raeber (fifth) entered, the Austrians Anton Steiner (bronze), Helmut Hoeflehner (fifth) and the great Klammer. The Canadians had Steve Podborski and Todd Brooker on the start list. All of these skiers had way more credentials than Johnson, still he boldly made his prediction, then stood behind it utilizing a well crafted tuck that had his hands in front of his face for a 0.27 of a second victory.
A good tuck calls for good ski preparation and Johnson got it from Atomic which assigned him Blake Lewis, perhaps the preeminent technician of the time. The night before the 1984 Olympic downhill, Lewis slept with the prepared skis under his bed. Together, they presented a formidable and unbeatable force.
Johnson was controversial long before attracting the wrath of the European ski racing community with his bold talk. He was branded a “bad boy” early in his racing career. Caught stealing cars and breaking into houses at age 17, Johnson went before a judge who gave him a choice: He could go to jail or college. He picked Wenatchee Valley CC in Washington and joined the Mission Ridge Ski Team, traveling to races, and often sleeping after those races in a Ford Pinto. He was good enough to be selected to forerun the Lake Placid Olympic downhill in 1980.
His mouth, however, brought attention most would shun. At Kitzbuehel, Austrian fans banged on U.S. team cars and tore at windshield wipers to show their distain for Johnson. Such action only made him more determined.
“In Switzerland and Austria every kid’s dream is to win the Olympic gold (in downhill),” Johnson told The New York Times in 1985. “I took it from them. The Swiss are good about it. … but the Austrians just can’t handle it.”
Though he would win two World Cup events after the 1984 Olympics, his life quickly turned tragic. After fulfilling his quest to win Olympic gold, he was kicked off the U.S. team following an altercation with a coach and did not make the 1988 Olympic team. In 1992 his son, just 17 months, drowned in a hot tub when a normally locked door was inadvertently left open. His wife left him in 1999 with finances said to be the chief contention between them.
Seeing ski racing as his best chance to gain financial stability, Johnson had “Ski to Die” tattooed on his arm and decided on a comeback. Then came the Montana crash, and frankly he was lucky to have ever walked again.
His bad boy image was accentuated after his injury. His celebrity status enhanced news of altercations with authority figures, including punching a sheriff’s deputy during a traffic stop in 2005. Despite the image, Johnson was renowned for his mental capabilities, whipping through crossword puzzles and crushing teammates at chess.
After a 2013 hospitalization for an infection doctors could not isolate to treat, Johnson elected to forego life support systems and let nature take its course. Still what was left of his body remained defiant. He did not succumb until Jan. 21, 2016 – nearly 32 years after his gold medal and 15 years after his brutal Montana crash.
Johnson’s legacy is in concrete. As he told Sports Illustrated’s great writer William Oscar Johnson in 1985, “I made it to the top, and I was the first to do it. No one can take that away — ever.” Nor would we want to.
Photo courtesy of Doug Lewis