- Alpine Skiing
Bill Johnson: 'The original American downhill badass'
WENGEN, Switzerland (AP) — At the Lauberhorn race on Jan 18, a potential 10-strong United States team includes three men who have World Cup victories in Alpine skiing's glamor downhill discipline.
A sixth American win on Switzerland's beloved slope snaking beneath the Eiger mountain would not surprise, especially if Bode Miller got his third.
It was not always this way.
Thirty years ago, Bill Johnson changed a Europe-dominated sport's perception of American skiing.
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On Jan. 15, 1984, Johnson's wild ride in Wengen delivered a first U.S. men's downhill victory in the 18th World Cup season. All 43 previous American wins were in slower, technical events.That the brash 23-year-old achieved this in his debut down the course, and after making a spectacular recovery on the fastest straight, was even more remarkable.
"Bill was cocky, he was very, like, arrogant," Miller told the Associated Press in Wengen this week.
"No one had won before and ski racing was considered a European sport. You have to be a little bit cocky, I think, to come in and think you can win."
Johnson's self-confidence is key to his place in Alpine skiing.
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One month after Wengen at the Sarajevo Olympics, he further upset the Austrian and Swiss favorites by boasting they should just give him the downhill gold medal.
"That blows my mind," Steven Nyman, a two-time World Cup downhill winner, said of Johnson's style. "He went into some meeting or bar, something like that where everybody was, and he goes in and says 'I'm going to kick all of your (behinds) tomorrow.' And everyone was like 'Man, this guy is crazy.'"And he went out and did it. Yeah, he was cocky and over the top, but he followed it through," Nyman said.
Again, Johnson blazed the trail for others to follow.
No American had won an Olympic men's downhill medal of any kind before 1984. (Not including Robert Redford's victory at the 1968 Grenoble Winter Games in the movie 'Downhill Racer', which filmed extensively in Wengen.)
Nyman credits Johnson for helping to create a tradition continued by Tommy Moe getting downhill gold at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.
"After that, he won the Olympics and Tommy won the Olympics and we have a rich heritage after that. We have the respect," Nyman said.
That respect was absent before Wengen — and only grudgingly given after by Johnson's rivals, recalls veteran Lauberhorn race president Viktor Gertsch.
"They said 'Who is this guy, Bill Johnson?' The other top racers did not have too much respect for him," Gertsch told the AP on Thursday.
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"He almost fell there before crossing the bridge to the entrance of the finish S bend," Gertsch recalled. "He was in trouble, he was on one ski, outside, almost in the deep snow."
Johnson's racing instincts earned him affectionate praise from current U.S. racer Marco Sullivan as "the original American downhill badass."
"Now that I look back on the history and all I have heard about him since, he was kind of an outlaw," said Sullivan, another World Cup winner who placed third at Wengen in 2009. "He just loved skiing, loved skiing fast and didn't care who he (annoyed) in the process."
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Johnson added two more World Cup victories in March 1984, laying foundations for what is now a 26-win tally in men's downhill for the Americans, and status as one of the established powers.
"People maybe thought he was a good racer but he wasn't a good ambassador for the U.S," said Miller, who has eight of those downhill titles, and added Olympic bronze at Vancouver four years ago.Johnson's golden second half of the 1984 Olympics season would be a brief peak. He never won again on the World Cup circuit and did not return after 1986.
His ill-fated attempted comeback ahead of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics ended in a serious crash, and his health declined further due to a stroke. Last July, he recovered from a life-threatening infection to return to an assisted living facility in Oregon.
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Gertsch fondly remembers last meeting Johnson in 2005, when Lauberhorn winners were invited back for a 75th anniversary celebration.
Despite his injuries, Johnson joined others in an improvised golf game down the ski trail, including whacking drives off the signature Hundschopf cliff face jump.
"He was quite happy and he could remember things," said Gertsch, who is also protective and mindful of Wengen's image worldwide.
"I am in tourism and that is the best thing that could happen to us, when we are having an American winner on the podium."
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