- Written by Ben Jacklet
- Category: Mountain Characters
- Published: March 03, 2016
- Last Updated: March 05, 2016
The late, great downhill racer Bill Johnson will be honored Saturday, March 19 at Skibowl with a memorial celebration and the dedication of a ski trail to the first American male ski racer to win an Olympic gold medal.
Johnson died in January at the age of 55 after years of struggling with post-concussion syndrome from traumatic brain injury.
He 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. 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."
Bill Johnson was not the first American ski racer to win Olympic gold—that was Gretchen Fraser, in 1948. But he was the first racer 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.
The gold medal was the pinnacle of Johnson's career, and his fortunes reversed not long after he won it. He won twice more on the World Cup circuit in 1984 in Aspen and Whistler, but never stepped on the podium again. Knee and back injuries curtailed his career, and when he attempted a comeback at age 40 for the Salt Lake City Olympics, he crashed during a training run in Montana and sustained a traumatic brain injury that erased nearly a decade of memories.
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.
The Bill Johnson Memorial Celebration is set for Saturday, March 19th at Skibowl, with continental breakfast at Skibowl's Historic Warming Hut starting at 9, a ski run dedication ceremony at 9:45 am, and a memorial dual giant slalom race in the afternoon. It will be a busy day at Skibowl, with Schnee Vogeli club championship races, the Johnson events and the Skibowl Snow Beach Pond Skim Festival.
A "gold medal rededication celebration" is scheduled for 4 pm at 70 Meters Bar & Grill, Multorpor Lodge at Skibowl East.
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.