Academy  |  Alumni  |  Calendar  |   News  |   About MRST   |   Contact

mrst-logo
mrst-logo

For Mission Ridge, Bill Johnson was a keeper

BillJohnsonPhoto3

Bill Johnson, former Mission Ridge Ski Academy athlete who won the gold medal in the downhill in stunning fashion at the 1984 Winter Olympics, died Jan. 21 at the age of 55.

 

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.

BIllJohnsonPhoto2US Team

U.S. Ski Team members, including Bill Johnson at far left. (Photo provided by Claudia Yamamoto)

“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.

BillJohnsonPhoto1Thys, Johnson, Lauba

From left to right, U.S. Ski Team members Barry Thys, Bill Johnson and Alan Lauba in the early 1980s. (Photo provided by Claudia Yamamoto)

“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

Clare Wise

Clare-WiseBirth date: Oct. 14, 1992

Hometown: Wenatchee

Notable ski racing accomplishments: Northwest Cup giant slalom champion in 2010; Hampton Cup championship in 2009 and 2010

Best moment on skis: Skiing Wenatchee Bowl for the first time in a foot of new; anytime I’m skiing with Mike Rolfs

Favorite run at Mission Ridge: Skookum from the ridge line

Words of wisdom for young skiers: Ski everything. Ski the groomers, the powder, the crud and everything in between. And when that gets boring, do it backwards or on one ski. Chances are you’ll improve a bunch and have a lot of fun in the process.

What is it about skiing you enjoy most: I love the camaraderie of skiing. I’ve made memories and had adventures with my teammates over the years. I’ll never forget skiing powder with them. I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

Favorite activity off the slopes: Road biking, running and power yoga.

Favorite subject in school: Physics

Favorite website: 1000awesomethings.com

On my iPod: SOJA, Counting Crows, and Tallest Man on Earth

Favorite food: My mom’s Paella

Chocolate or vanilla: Vanilla

I wish I could meet: Winston Churchill

I can’t live without: Running shoes, peanut butter and a good book

Continue Reading No Comments

Jacob Deruwe

Jacob-Deruwe.pgBirth date: Sept. 20, 1996

Hometown: Connell

Notable ski racing accomplishments: Got an elite pass as a J3

Best moment on skis: Free skiing with friends at Mount Hood Meadows

Favorite run at Mission Ridge: Chak-Chak

Words of wisdom for young skiers: Don’t ever stop trying.

What is it about skiing you enjoy most: Going fast

Favorite activity off the slopes: Football

Favorite subject in school: Welding

Favorite website: Facebook

On my iPod: Rock, metal, country

Favorite food: Steak

Chocolate or vanilla: Chocolate

I wish I could meet: Bode Miller

I can’t live without: My friends

Continue Reading No Comments

Danny O’Neal

Birth date: March 1, 1995

Hometown: Baker City, Ore.

Notable ski racing accomplishments: J2 junior champs

Best moment on skis: Skiing powder at Anthony Lakes in Oregon

Favorite run at Mission Ridge: None

Words of wisdom for young skiers: Go big!

What is it about skiing you enjoy most: Laying down a big arc. Plus, skiing witfriends.

Favorite activity off the slopes: Football

Favorite subject in school: Drafting

Favorite website: google.com

On my iPod: Wiz Khalifa, Taylor Swift

Favorite food: Cheeseburger

Chocolate or vanilla: Chocolate

I wish I could meet: Daron Rahlves

I can’t live without: My skis

Continue Reading No Comments

Travis Ahmann

Travis-AhmannBirth date: Feb. 25, 1994

Hometown: Everett

Notable ski racing accomplishments: J2 Junior Champs; first place in J2 Northwest Cup Slalom in 2011

Best moment on skis: Learning to do a back-flip

Favorite run at Mission Ridge: Bomber Bowl

Words of wisdom for young skiers: Stay focused and make sure you enjoy it.

What is it about skiing you enjoy most: Friends and family

Favorite activity off the slopes: Golf, soccer, cross country, hunting, fishing, photography

Favorite subject in school: History

Favorite website: hulu.com

On my iPod: Macklemore, Beatles, Guns & Roses

Favorite food: Steak

Chocolate or vanilla: Vanilla

I wish I could meet: Macklemore

I can’t live without: My phone

Continue Reading No Comments

Fred Williams

Fred_WilliamsBirth date: April 2, 1996

Hometown: Richland

Notable ski racing accomplishments: Competed in JOs in 2010-11 season

Best moment on skis: Powder skiing at Squaw Valley

Favorite run at Mission Ridge: Chak-Chak

Words of wisdom for young skiers: Don’t give up.

What is it about skiing you enjoy most: Going fast.

Favorite activity off the slopes: Hanging with friends

Favorite subject in school: History

Favorite website: Facebook

On my iPod: Rock music

Favorite food: Steak

Chocolate or vanilla: Chocolate

I wish I could meet: Atlanta Falcons (and former Oregon State University) running back Jaquizz Rogers

I can’t live without: Oregon State sports

Continue Reading No Comments

Max Tobler

Birth date: April 14, 1995

Hometown: Portland

Notable ski racing accomplishments: First place in giant slalom at JOS qualifier in Spokane

Best moment on skis: Powder day at Snowbird

Favorite run at Mission Ridge: Skookum

Words of wisdom for young skiers: The sport gets more fun as you get older.

What is it about skiing you enjoy most: Going fast

Favorite activity off the slopes: Skateboarding

Favorite subject in school: Photography

Favorite website: thissongissick.com/blog and facebook

On my iPod: Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dr. Dre, and Tyler, The Creator

Favorite food: Pizza

Chocolate or vanilla: Chocolate

I wish I could meet: Megan Fox

I can’t live without: My iPad, Nintendo DS

Continue Reading No Comments

Benjamin Holmberg

Birth date: June 21, 1996

Hometown: Wenatchee

Most notable ski racing accomplishments: Going to Junior Olympics

Best moment on skis: Whenever there is powder

Favorite run at Mission Ridge: Bomber Bowl

Words of wisdom for young skiers: Learn from your mistakes.

What is it about skiing you enjoy most: Going fast

Favorite activity off the slopes: “Watch Man vs. Food”

Favorite subject in school: Mathematics

Favorite website: Lululemon.org

On my iPod: Western jazz

Favorite food: Rocky Mountain Oysters

Chocolate or vanilla: Vanilla all da way

Wish I could meet: Harold Chimer

Can’t live without: My family

Continue Reading No Comments

Lindsay Ahmann

Lindsay-AhmannBirth date: June 6, 1996

Hometown: Marysville

Notable ski racing accomplishments: Junior Olympics three years in a row; overall team at Junior Olympics

Best moment on skis: Jumping the Bad News run in 6 feet of powder at Alta, Utah

Favorite run at Mission Ridge: Windy Ridge

Words of wisdom for young skiers: Follow your dreams. You can do anything you set your mind to.

What is it about skiing you enjoy most: Skiing fresh powder; setting goals for this coming season; and being with people who love skiing as much as I do. Adrenaline.

Favorite activity off the slopes: Soccer, and hanging with friends

Favorite subject in school: English, mathematics and history

Favorite website: thissongissick.com and youtube.com

On my iPod: Country and some hip-hop

Favorite food: Pasta and marinara sauce and caesar salad

Chocolate or vanilla: Chocolate

I wish I could meet: Lindsey Vonn and Ted Ligety

I can’t live without: Music, skiing, friends and Max Tobler

Continue Reading No Comments

Austin Dean

Birth date: Aug. 7, 1994

Hometown: Portland

Most notable ski racing accomplishments: Second place in J2 nationals super-g, qualifying for U.S. Nationals

Best moment on skis: When I dropped into Corbits Colour in Jackson Hole, Wyo. It was something I had wanted to do my whole life. When I did it there were a handful of people cheering me on that I didn’t even know. It was a really cool moment.

Favorite run at Mission Ridge: This is my first year at Mission so I am not sure yet.

Words of wisdom for young skiers: Have fun while you’re skiing!

What is it about skiing you enjoy most: I enjoy the freedom of skiing and the adrenaline rush I get when I click into my bindings. I always know it’s going to be a good day when that binding snaps up.

Favorite activity off the slopes: Playing golf or soccer, or hanging out with friends.

Favorite subject in school: Mathematics

Favorite website: ESPN.com

On my iPod: A little bit of everything.

Favorite food: Cajun chicken

Chocolate or vanilla: Chocolate (ice cream)

Wish I could meet: Shane McConkey, and be able to ski one day with him
Can’t live without: Powder and free skiing

Continue Reading No Comments

Lodge Talk

@Missionridge

MRST's Jeffery Webb will be making history at the 2018 Winter Olympics!... fb.me/vtOAZUjr

@Missionridge

Great video on jumping. fb.me/KEfcGLx5

@Missionridge

Good Morning Athletes. fb.me/3hc1y9mRj

@Missionridge

Take note mrst athletes fb.me/19NYdrBrg

Contact Us

MRSEF Office: Directions »
25 N. Wenatchee, Ave. Suite 112
Wenatchee, WA 98801

Phone: (509) 888-2372
Executive Director: ryan@mrst.us

Social: facebook-icon twitter-icon instagram-icon youtube-icon vimeo-icon