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First U.S. Olympic downhill ski champion, tragic alpine racer Bill Johnson dies at 55

"Such a glorious, unlikely and eminently sad tale. The stuff of legend," said Christin Cooper, 1984 Olympic silver medalist in the women's giant slalom.
By Doug G. Ware   |   Updated Jan. 22, 2016 at 6:12 PM

PORTLAND, Ore., Jan. 22 (UPI) -- Bill Johnson, a former U.S. ski champion who came out of nowhere 32 years ago to become the first American to win gold in the men's downhill at the Winter Olympic Games, has died after fighting more than a decade of physical deterioration related to a tumultuous ski crash.

Johnson, who had been living at an assisted-living facility near Portland, Ore., died Thursday, the U.S. Ski Team announced Friday. He was 55.

Born in Los Angeles on March 30, 1960, and raised in Idaho, Johnson unexpectedly burst onto the global ski scene in 1984 and recorded the United States' first World Cup victory in the men's downhill of the modern era.

The following month, at age 23, he further stunned the alpine skiing world by winning gold in the same event at the Sarajevo Winter Olympic Games even more unexpectedly -- edging out Swiss skier Peter Müller by 0.27 seconds.

It was the first time an American had ever medaled in the men's downhill at any Olympics. In fact, no member of the U.S. Ski Team had ever finished higher than fifth -- and no skier, man or woman, from any location outside the Alps had ever won the event.

The man, the myth, the legend. Ski in peace, Bill Johnson.

Posted by U.S. Ski Team on Friday, January 22, 2016

"Finally, the string is broken!" a jubilant and cocksure Johnson said in the moments after capturing gold at Bjelašnica mountain on Feb. 16, 1984. Not only did the win break the medal-less streak for the United States in the downhill, it broke a streak of nine straight Olympic golds in the event for European skiers, mostly Austrian.

"We can win a lot more. I was glad to stick it to the Austrians," added the brash Johnson, who boldly -- and some thought foolishly -- predicted that he would win the gold. "This is both America's medal and mine. Now America has it."

The stunning upset provided the United States with its second consecutive dramatic Olympic gatecrashing -- after the hockey team's historic defeat of the Soviet Union in the "Miracle on Ice" at the 1980 Lake Placid games.

Johnson's World Cup win and subsequent gold at Sarajevo saw him skyrocket from a veritable alpine also-ran to the height of his sport in barely a month's time. By the end of 1984, he was ranked third in the world.

Much like the city of Sarajevo itself, however, tragedy loomed in Johnson's future.

Injuries had started to derail Johnson's meteoric rise by 1986, and he didn't even qualify for the U.S. Ski Team at 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary -- robbing him the opportunity to defend his gold medal in the men's downhill. Personal setbacks and recurring injuries spurred his eventual retirement after the 1990 ski season.

Two years later, his infant son, Ryan, drowned in a hot tub -- and his wife left seven years after that, taking his two other sons. Once living in a home in Malibu, Calif., and driving a Porsche, Johnson's finances had dried up and he was living in a motor home by the turn of the century.

It was around that time that he attempted a comeback aimed at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. In 2001, though, during a training run for the U.S. Alpine Championships, he crashed in spectacular fashion at Big Mountain, near Kalispell, Mont., sustained a traumatic brain injury and spent three weeks in a coma.

The serious injury put an end to Johnson's dreams of a triumphant return to alpine skiing and lingering complications from it would remain for the rest of his life.

In 2010, he suffered a massive stroke and required permanent full-time care. For nearly 15 years, he endured physical pain owing to the crash, lost some of his vision, had trouble speaking and couldn't even sit upright unassisted. An infection in 2013 nearly killed him, and complications that returned last year finally did.

"Billy was a fighter and went about things his way. That toughness allowed him to reach heights in the skiing world that few will ever accomplish," Phil Mahre, winner of the 1984 Olympic men's slalom gold, said. "It's a sad day in the ski racing world."

Johnson's victory in 1984 began an era that saw other U.S. skiers medal in the event. Tommy Moe won downhill gold in 1994 and Bode Miller took silver in 2010. On the women's side, Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso won both the gold and silver in Vancouver six years ago -- and Hilary Lindh and Picabo Street won silver in 1992 and 1994, respectively.

In the three decades since Johnson's improbable victory, the United States has put together one of the world's best alpine skiing programs.

"RIP Bill," Vonn tweeted Friday.

"Such a glorious, unlikely and eminently sad tale. The stuff of legend," Christin Cooper, who won silver in Sarajevo in the women's giant slalom, said. "What an enigmatic figure. A totally rare cat, especially in ski racing.

"The good, the bad and the ugly. That was Bill. And he proudly, even gracefully in the end, owned all of it."

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