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Bill Johnson with Cascade Ski Club member Peggy Stone on Mount Hood. Photo courtesy of the Mt. Hood Museum

Bill Johnson, the great and fearless ski racer who grew up shredding Mount Hood and went on to win the first-ever U.S. gold medal in the Olympic downhill, died yesterday at the age of 55 after years of struggling with post-concussion syndrome from traumatic brain injury.

bill-johnson-in-sarajevoJohnson grew up in Gresham and started skiing on Mt. Hood at the age of 6. As a teenager he got in trouble for stealing a car and was given a choice either to attend a ski racing academy and develop his talents, or go to jail. He chose skiing, and within a few years he had the audacity not only to predict that he would win gold in Sarajevo in 1984, but to win it. He was 23.

Winning gold in Sarajevo riding his bright red Atomic sleds meant defeating the great European racers who dominated the sport at the time, including the legendary Franz Klammer. Douglas Martin of the New York Times compared Johnson to Fred Astaire: "graceful and fluid and landing lightly off a jump. Johnson launched his gold-medal-winning descent by first pointing his ski pole down at the course unfolding below him, a gesture reminiscent of Babe Ruth’s with a bat in baseball lore. Klammer finished a distant 10th. Klammer said he was surprised.”

Johnson's victory was more than just surprising. It was a huge breakthrough and a signal of a power shift to come for American ski racing. "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."

The gold medal was the pinnacle of Johnson's career, and his fortunes reversed not long after he won it. Eric Willemsen, a skiing writer for the Associated Press, writes, “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.”

Willemsen's obituary for the AP explains that Johnson  attempted a comeback at age 40 for the Salt Lake City Olympics, but he crashed during a training run in Montana and sustained a traumatic brain injury that erased nearly a decade of memories:

He had to learn how to walk, talk and eat again. He made steady improvement over the years, even returning to the slopes for recreation. But his health deteriorated again because of strokes.

Injuries left Johnson debilitated and struggling for many years, and he died in an assisted living facility in Gresham. He is survived by his mother DB Johnson-Cooper.

Mt. Hood locals who knew Johnson describe him as warm and friendly and unassuming even after winning gold—and more than a little bit wild.

Southridge High Ski Racing Coach Jason Hattery met Johnson a few years back during an Oregon Interscholastic Ski Racing Association state championship, and considered it an honor: “His gold medal downhill was a run for the ages.”

Another Mount Hood regular, former World Cup and Olympic ski racing star AJ Kitt, knew Johnson well and had this to say about him:

He was an icon and leader in the ski racing world. He broke through a barrier for the US that many of us benefited from. He was brash, combative, intense, tough, and talented. He and I did not get along well during the 2 seasons we were teammates. But I feel like our sport would not have become what it is today without his influence. His life was tragic, ironic, sad, spectacular and unique.

Johnson's fellow racers give him full respect for initiating a hard-earned breakthrough for American ski racing. Two-time Olympic medalist Andrew Weibrecht told the AP that Johnson was “an unbelievable fighter” who “jump-started American downhill racing.”

Lindsey Vonn called him "a pioneer" and "an inspiration." Travis Ganong called him "a legend."

“He didn't care what anyone said, he did it his way,” added U.S. downhill racer Steven Nyman.

The Mt. Hood ski community continued to honor Johnson long after his peak of fame. Photos of him still adorn the Cascade Ski Club & Lodge and the Mt. Hood Museum in Govy, and many long-time Mt. Hood racers still speak with pride of the local kid who went on to make history in Europe.

Please feel free to leave your memories of Bill Johnson to the comments section below. He was one of a kind, and he will be missed.