bills-gold

Bill Johnson fans, friends and family gather to rename Dog Leg Bill's Gold. Bill's mom DB is in the center wearing a red hat. Photos by Steve Garretson

Friends and family of the great ski racer Bill Johnson gathered at Mt. Hood Skibowl Saturday to remember an individual who lived a full life on the edge.

Johnson grew up training at Skibowl in the late 60s with the Mt. Hood Race Team, taunting his teammates every time he beat them by one tenth of a second. One year he broke his arm prior to the Oregon 4-Way, which tests young skiers in Nordic and Alpine skills, and he competed in the jumping contest with his arm in a cast and one ski pole.

"Bill was a fierce competitor from a very young age," says Mt. Hood Race Team co-founder Duane Bridges. "It came from deep within him, all that drive he had."

He went on to win three World Cup downhills in 1984 and then become a global star with his brash victory of Franz Klammer at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. Legend has it that the night before the big downhill Johnson walked into the hotel where Klammer and the Austrian racing team were gathered to inform them that they would be racing for second. He backed it up with a gutsy victory on national television that would prove the pinnacle of his career.

Bill Johnson was not the first American ski racer to win Olympic gold—that was Gretchen Fraser, in 1948. But he was the first in the modern era of television and celebrity, and his victory brought him instant fame, and some of the trappings that can accompany instant fame. He never regained his stellar skiing form after that great victory, and he struggled in his personal life. He got in fights, lost his son in a tragic hot tub accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury from a crash while attempting a ski racing comeback at age 40. He died in an assisted care facility in Gresham at the age of 55.

The festivities at Skibowl Saturday focused on the good years, the incredible drive that made Bill the champion he was, and the entertaining stories that made up his life. Former Olympian Petr Kakes (pictured christening the new Bill's Gold run) organized a first-class program of events for the day, with breakfast at the warming hut, a run-naming ceremony, a Bill Johnson Memorial Race, and a gold medal re-dedication at Multorphor with food, drinks, remembrances, posters and a highly entertaining video and slide show of Bill in his prime. Young racers skied down carrying Johnson's gold medal to present it to his mother DB, who was in high spirits surrounded by friends and family.

Kakes, who runs Skibowl's Historic Warming Hut and the tuning and repair shop at Skibowl, has set up a Bill Johnson Foundation with proceeds going to young racers who train on Mount Hood.

This photo gallery from Steve Garretson gives a nice flavor of the day's festivities:

Bill's Mom DB with Skibowl owner Kirk Hanna and Warming Hut proprietor Petr Kakes