Bill Johnson craved speed — the faster, the better. He stole cars as a kid, got in trouble for it and was ordered by a judge to make a choice: Ski school or jail.
Johnson picked the slopes and wound up taking the sport by storm.
The brash skier had movie-star looks and a personality to match. He won over legions of fans by backing up his braggadocio and becoming the first American to capture the Olympic downhill title. Johnson died after a long illness, the U.S. ski team said Friday from Kitzbuehel, Austria. He was 55.
He died Thursday at an assisted living facility in Gresham, Oregon, where he has been staying since a major stroke a few years ago steadily took away the use of most of his body.
The daredevil skier lived life on the edge, with a swagger and a rebellious attitude that instantly made him a favorite among fans. So sure of himself on the slopes, Johnson won Olympic gold at the 1984 Sarajevo Games after telling everyone he was going to do so.
He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated after that victory, a shot of him flying through the air in a perfect tuck position, his gaze intently focused down the race course, and the caption reading, “Flat out for Glory.”
That’s the way Johnson attacked a mountain — the Bode Miller of skiing long before Miller. Johnson had a tattoo on his arm that read, “Ski to die.”
“Bill Johnson was cut from a different cloth,” American ski great Phil Mahre said in a statement. “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.”
Four-time overall World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn echoed that thought.
“He was an incredible legend in our sport so I just hope he rests in peace and my condolences to his family,” Vonn said.
In 2001, Johnson attempted to recapture his glory days and made a comeback at the U.S. championships at age 40, hoping to earn a spot on the squad for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. But Johnson wiped out during a practice run, suffering a traumatic brain injury that erased nearly a decade of memories. He also had to relearn how to walk, talk and eat again.
Over the years, he gradually improved and even returned to the slopes on a recreational basis. Then, in June 2010, Johnson had a stroke. Little by little his body weakened, leaving him with only the use of his left hand. That was his steering hand, the one he used to race his motorized chair down the hallways at the care facility, so fast that nurses had to tell him to slow down.
Johnson on the slopes was something to behold, paving the way for racers like Tommy Moe, A.J. Kitt, Daron Rahlves and, of course, Miller.
“He loved the downhill,” Johnson’s mother, D.B. Johnson-Cooper, once said in an interview. “That was his life. That’s the reason he went back (in 2001). He was going to try to do it again. He could’ve done it.”
As a teenager, Johnson had a wild streak that had him careening down the wrong path. Caught stealing cars, the judge gave him a choice: Take up skiing or off to jail.
Johnson attended Mission Ridge Ski Academy in Washington, where he discovered he had plenty of potential, winning a Europa Cup crown.
He made his first World Cup start in February 1983, taking sixth at a downhill in St. Anton, Austria. A year later in Wengen, Switzerland, he captured his first big-league race.
Despite his short time on the circuit, Johnson was one of the favorites heading into the 1984 Olympics — and he let everyone know it. That was simply his style and it got under the skin of European skiers.
On his downhill run that day in Sarajevo, Johnson was virtually flawless as he held off the Austrians and Swiss.
The win in Sarajevo was the summit of his success. He won twice more that season, but wouldn’t step on the World Cup podium again.
When he finished his career, Johnson’s life began to unravel. He lost his first son, Ryan, at around 13 months in a hot tub accident and went through a divorce a few years later. He wasn’t sure what to do next — skiing was his passion.
So he made a return.
At the U.S. championships near Whitefish, Montana, Johnson was speeding down the course at close to 60 mph when he entered a twisting section. He lost his balance, did the splits and slammed face first into the snow, biting off a chunk of his tongue as he flew through two sets of safety netting.
He needed a breathing tube at the mountain and then was quickly transported to a hospital by helicopter.
For three years after the accident, Johnson stayed with his mom as he recovered. Then, he moved into a trailer home to regain some independence.
In January 2008, he slowly started losing the use of his right side. He was having mini strokes, the doctors eventually concluded.
Then he had an even more debilitating stroke, all but immobilizing him. He spent most of his time confined to his wheelchair or his bed, playing video games or watching game shows.
The good days, he whispered over the phone in an interview with The Associated Press in 2012, were when his sons, Nick and Tyler, stopped by for visits. That always brightened his day, his mother said.
Asked in that interview what he wanted people to remember most about Bill Johnson, he was quiet on the phone for a moment before saying in a soft voice, “Best American skier.”