By Steve Maher
WENATCHEE — He could be so brash and such a rebel that he became known as the bad boy of skiing, the rogue of the slopes.
That was the public image, at least.
But those who knew the iconic Bill Johnson at Mission Ridge recall another side of his personality that often got lost once he rose to fame with a series of victories in 1984 that were unprecedented for an American skier.
Johnson, who died Jan. 21 in the Portland area after several years of declining health due to a stroke, was a “puppy dog” beneath his cocky, determined, hard-to-get-along persona, they say.
“Billy never forgot where he came from or who his friends were,” said Claudia Yamamoto, who helped coach Johnson when he was part of the Mission Ridge Ski Academy in 1978-79. “You could run into the guy 15 or 20 years later and he remembered who you were, gave a huge smile and hug, and acted like he’d seen you yesterday. For all his brashness, there was always a little guy looking for someone to care about him.”
His death at an assisted living facility at the age of 55 hit the Mission Ridge community hard. Tributes to the first American male to win an Olympic gold medal in downhill skiing poured into the Mission Ridge Ski Team office. The ski team has since renamed its longtime Hampton Cup races the Bill Johnson Memorial Hampton Cup.
“We did it out of respect for him and the impact he had on our sport and because he was an inspiration to all who knew him, especially those folks who were in the Academy here with him,” said Kari Johnson, development director of the Mission Ridge Ski Team and Mission Ridge Academy.
Mission Ridge, in turn, was good to Johnson. In fact, he may never have achieved stardom if not for the coaches and others who gave him a hand while he was in Wenatchee.
Johnson grew up racing at Bogus Basin, Idaho, and Mount Hood, Oregon. But he found himself in trouble with the law as a teen-ager in Portland after being caught stealing a car. He was given a choice: Attend a ski academy or head to jail. So he went off to Mission Ridge.
“Bill arrived at the Mission Ridge Ski Academy as a result of an agreement between myself and the judge,” said Dick Knowles, the head coach at the time who now lives in Haines, Ore. “Bill had few options at the time and his father was successful in convincing the judge that this was a good option for Bill due to the history of the academy and the rules that were in place for all athletes.”
Yamamoto said Johnson joined the team late that first season in Wenatchee. It wasn’t long, though, before he was turning heads.
Bruce Bendickson, a former Mission Ridge Ski Team member, recalls watching Johnson fly off a bump on the upper Skookum run during one of his first training sessions.
“He held a tuck the whole time, he was so determined,” Bendickson said. “He just sailed forever. And he held his position perfectly.”
Knowles said Johnson followed the ski academy’s training rules and was a good teammate. When off the slopes, he worked at a Big Boy restaurant for pocket money.
“During his time with the program, he performed well,” Knowles said. “There were no major problems with staff or other athletes. (He) was very helpful during this time and assisted the staff whenever he could.”
During those years, the Mission Ridge Ski Academy was chock full of good athletes, including several who would subsequently make the U.S. Ski Team. It wasn’t until Johnson’s second year racing for the Ridge that he began to hit the podium consistently.
“When he won the Northwest Cup series title at White Pass, it went down to the wire,” Yamamoto said. “And riding home in the van, holding that trophy up, he shouted to all of us, ‘This is just the start!’”
After two seasons at Mission Ridge, Johnson received a scholarship from the Lake Placid (N.Y.) Ski Team. From there he made the U.S. Ski Team and then in early 1984 he firmly established himself on the global scene with a victory in the Lauberhorn downhill at Wengen, Switzerland, in just his second year on the World Cup circuit. It was the first American men’s downhill World Cup win of the modern era.
The best was still to come. A month later, Johnson arrived at the Olympics in Sarajevo and quickly garnered headlines by predicting that he would win, ala Muhammad Ali. He came through, beating silver medalist Peter Mueller of Switzerland by 0.27 seconds. It was the first time an American man had won gold in Alpine skiing. He was just 23 years of age.
“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 a statement after Johnson’s death. “In retrospect, it’s still amazing.”
“The youngster’s been cocky, he’s been calm, he’s been cool — and he has backed it all up right here,” ABC announcer Frank Gifford said in awe, moments after Johnson won at Sarajevo.
Asked what the victory meant as the cameras zoomed in later, Johnson remarked, “Millions. We’re talking millions.”
Looking back, Yamamoto said she wasn’t surprised Johnson won gold.
“He was a glider and the course at Sarajevo was a glider’s course, and he was determined,” she said. “He told everyone he was going to win. So he had to.”
It was a heady time for Johnson after that triumph. At a White House reception, President Ronald Reagan told him, “You gave your country thrills beyond description.” There also were endorsement deals, magazine covers and even a television movie about his life, “Going for the Gold: The Bill Johnson Story,” starring Anthony Edwards as Johnson.
But even in victory, Johnson didn’t always receive the admiration he felt he deserved. Bendickson recalls talking to him in Bend, Ore., the summer after the Olympics. All Johnson could talk about was how a mentor had never contacted him and congratulated him.
“I think there was a hole in his ego that could never be filled,” Bendickson said.
Johnson lived it up for awhile, buying a house in Malibu, Calif., along with a spendy Porsche. He also got married.
Johnson’s athletic life, however, would soon take a downward spiral. Over the next few seasons, he struggled with knee and back injuries and never regained the form he held in 1984. He attempted a comeback in 2001, at age 40, but crashed while training and was critically injured with brain injuries. It required him to learn how to walk, talk and eat again. Then in 2010, he suffered a stroke that left him confined to a nursing home.
In 2015, the Associated Press reported Johnson could not move his arms or legs anymore.
When he learned Johnson had died, Bendickson said he was saddened.
“He was such a bigger-than-life character you knew,” Bendickson said. “He took each one of us to our dream at the top of the podium and I think he now takes a little bit of all of us along with him in passing.”
“Bill served and will continue to serve as an inspiration to many of us that knew him,” said Klev Schoening, another former Mission Ridge racer who also was a member of the U.S. Ski Team. “Bill was the epitome of someone that sets his mind in stone to achieve something and then overcame every obstacle to make it happen. I will remember him for his pit bull determination and his laugh.”
When she learned of his death, Yamamoto cried.
Days later, she found herself reminiscing about Johnson’s good nature, recalling the time she saw him at Mount Hood in the late 1990s.
“I had not seen him for a long time, probably at least a decade, and I was in a lift line and someone poked me from behind. And I turn around and there he is. And he said, ‘I knew it was you Claudia by the way you were standing. I just kept watching and I knew it was you.’ If you had any kind of relationship with him, it was important to him.”Continue Reading No Comments