Bill Johnson
Alpine skier
Johnson in 1984
DisciplinesDownhill, Super G, Combined
Born(1960-03-30)March 30, 1960
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
DiedJanuary 21, 2016(2016-01-21) (aged 55)
Gresham, Oregon, U.S.
Height5 ft 9 in (175 cm)
World Cup debutFebruary 5, 1983 (age 22)
RetiredMarch 1990 (age 30)
Teams1 – (1984)
Medals1 (1 gold)
World Championships
Teams1 – (1985)
World Cup
Seasons8 – (19831990)
Wins3 – (3 DH)
Podiums3 – (3 DH)
Overall titles0 – (14th in 1984)
Discipline titles0 – (3rd in DH, 1984)
Medal record

William Dean Johnson (March 30, 1960 – January 21, 2016) was an American World Cup alpine ski racer. By winning the downhill at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, Johnson became the first American male to win an Olympic gold medal in alpine skiing and the first racer not from an Alpine country to win an Olympic downhill race.

Olympic triumph

Bill Johnson was born in Los Angeles, California, on March 30, 1960,[1] and moved with his family to Boise, Idaho, when he was seven. He learned to ski at Bogus Basin in the late 1960s.[2] Two years later, they moved to Brightwood, Oregon, near Mount Hood, and Johnson later attended Sandy Union High School in Sandy.[2][3] He was a troubled youth who began competitive skiing on nearby Mount Hood as a means of harnessing his energy. After a run-in with the law at age 17, the juvenile defendant was given the choice between six months in jail or attending the Mission Ridge ski academy in central Washington state, and he chose the latter.[4] His talent in the downhill event eventually landed him a spot on the U.S. Ski Team. Johnson made his World Cup debut in February 1983 and finished sixth in the downhill at St. Anton, Austria.

In 1984 at age 23, Johnson challenged the long-established European domination of downhill ski racing. Even some of his teammates considered the 23-year-old Mr. Johnson a brash upstart, as he reveled in his image as the bad boy of skiing. He was called Billy the Kid.[1]

"Basically, any downhill skier is a daredevil, and I'm no exception," he said before the Winter Games in the former Yugoslavia. "I like to drive cars faster than 100 [miles per hour]. I like to go over bumps in my car and get airborne. I like to drink. I chase girls full time, but I only drink part time."[1]

After mostly undistinguished finishes, his unexpected victory on January 15, on the storied Lauberhorn course at Wengen, Switzerland, was the first for an American male in World Cup downhill competition.[5]

A month later at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia (now Bosnia), he had promising downhill training runs on a course that favored his gliding style. He boldly predicted his Olympic victory, evoking comparisons to Joe Namath and Muhammad Ali, and irking his European competitors.[6] His gold medal win at Bjelašnica in a time of 1:45.59 edged out silver medalist Peter Müller of Switzerland by 0.27 seconds. True to form, when asked in the post-race press conference what his victory meant to him, he exclaimed, "Millions, man, we're talkin' millions!"[7][8]

Post-Olympic decline

After two more World Cup downhill victories in Aspen and Whistler in March 1984, Johnson was at the top of his sport. With four downhill wins in just two months, he was an Olympic champion and finished third in the downhill season standings.[9][10] But after the 1984 season, his best results were two 7th-place finishes: at Wengen in January 1985 and at Whistler in March 1986. His brashness made him unpopular with the European fans and competitors.[11] Three days late to a training camp, his financial support was withdrawn in May 1985,[12][13] but he returned to the team several months later.[14]

Due to injuries to his left knee in December 1986[15][16] and back which required surgery,[17] and more significantly, sagging results, Johnson was left off the U.S. team for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, unable to defend his gold medal.[18][19] A month later he was suspended from the team and missed the final events of the 1988 season.[20] It was later disclosed he had a locker room scuffle with an assistant coach in November 1987.[21] By the end of the decade, he was done as a serious competitor; he retired after the 1990 season.[22]

Soon after his Olympic win, Johnson openly voiced his strong opinions about amateurism in ski racing and the U.S. Ski Team's handling of his finances.[23][24][25] He attempted to start a professional circuit of downhill racing in 1985 to compete with the World Cup, but it failed to gain momentum.[14][26]

Johnson's Olympic career was the subject of a 1985 TV movie called Going for the Gold: The Bill Johnson Story, featuring future ER actor Anthony Edwards in the title role.[27] It first aired in May and also included Dennis Weaver and Sarah Jessica Parker.[28]

Johnson had two sons, named Tyler and Nick.[29] Johnson's stated personal motto (tattooed on his arm) was "Ski To Die."

Comeback attempt

Johnson's personal life suffered as well, when his 13-month-old son, Ryan, drowned in a hot tub in 1992. At age 40, his marriage ended in divorce, and he was bankrupt and living in his class A motorhome when he mounted an improbable comeback bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The comeback ended abruptly on March 22, 2001, when Johnson crashed during a training run prior to the downhill race of the 2001 U.S. Alpine Championships, held at The Big Mountain near Whitefish, Montana.[30] He sustained serious injury to the left side of his brain, nearly bit off his tongue, and was comatose for three weeks.[31]

In 2010, Johnson lived in Zigzag, near Mount Hood, and remained brain-damaged and in need of constant care, mostly from his mother. He became slightly more functional, though his speech and memory were permanently impaired.[32][33]

Johnson had suffered a series of mini-strokes over the course of the previous ten years. Later in 2010, he fell victim to a massive stroke and was moved to a long-term care facility in Gresham. Due to the stroke, Johnson lost the ability to sit up unassisted and could no longer use his right hand. He also lost sight in his left eye and further lost the ability to speak above a whisper. He also suffered great pain when swallowing, which made feeding him difficult.[34]

In June 2013, Johnson contracted an infection that nearly took his life. He was placed on life support while doctors worked to fight the infection. Johnson elected in July to remove himself from life support and refuse further treatment.[35] He gave instructions that should something similar occur, his wishes were that he be allowed to die.[citation needed] Following a return to long-term care in February 2014, he was said to be free of infection, able to move one side of his body, eat and smoke with assistance, and communicate using a letter board.[36] However, Johnson experienced worsening health over the next two years.


Nearly fifteen years after his accident, Johnson died at the age of 55 on January 21, 2016, at the care facility in Gresham.[1][29]

World Cup results

Season standings

Season Age Overall Slalom Giant
Super G Downhill Combined
1983 22 65 not
27 25
1984 23 14 3
1985 24 57 49 24
1986 25 41 20
1987 26 (103) injured in Dec 1986, out for season
1988 27 (116) no World Cup points
1989 28 (103)
1990 29 (108)

Top ten finishes

Season Date Location Discipline Place
1983 February 11, 1983 Austria St. Anton, Austria Downhill 6th
1984 January 15, 1984  Switzerland  Wengen, Switzerland Downhill 1st
February 2, 1984 Italy Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy Downhill 4th
Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia 1984 Winter Olympics
March 4, 1984 United States Aspen, CO, USA Downhill 1st
March 11, 1984 Canada Whistler, BC, Canada Downhill 1st
1985 January 19, 1985  Switzerland  Wengen, Switzerland Downhill 10th
January 20, 1985 Downhill 7th
1986 January 18, 1986 Austria Kitzbühel, Austria Downhill 8th
February 7, 1986 France Morzine, France Downhill 10th
February 21, 1986 Sweden Åre, Sweden Downhill 9th
March 15, 1986 Canada Whistler, BC, Canada Downhill 7th


Olympic results

  Year    Age   Slalom  Giant
Super-G Downhill Combined
1984 23 not run 1 not run

World championship results

  Year    Age   Slalom   Giant 
Super-G Downhill Combined
1985 24 not run 14



  1. ^ a b c d Schudel, Matt (January 22, 2016). "Bill Johnson, 'bad boy' of skiing and Olympic downhill champion, dies at 55". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 23, 2016.
  2. ^ a b "Mom skies over skier". Eugene Register-Guard. Associated Press. February 17, 1984. p. 3D.
  3. ^ "Johnson's Parents Buoyed By Victory". Toledo Blade. Associated Press. February 17, 1984. p. 17.
  4. ^ "Johnson nearly paid the price for jail stop". Daytona Beach Morning Journal. Associated Press. February 19, 1984. p. 10D.
  5. ^ "Bill Johnson surprises in World Cup downhill". Reading Eagle. Associated Press. January 16, 1984. p. 25.
  6. ^ Richman, Milton (February 17, 1984). "Brash Bill Johnson makes honesty pay". Ellensburg (WA) Daily Record. UPI. p. 9.
  7. ^ "Johnson wins Olympic downhill gold". Ellensburg (WA) Daily Record. UPI. February 16, 1984. p. 10.
  8. ^ – 1984 Olympic Downhill – top 15 finishers – accessed December 27, 2010
  9. ^ – World Cup season standings – Bill Johnson – 1983–86 – accessed December 27, 2010
  10. ^ Johnson, William Oscar (January 28, 1985). "Rub-a-dub-dub, he was splashier in the tub". Sports Illustrated: 34.
  11. ^ Abt, Samuel (January 26, 1985). "One year later, Bill Johnson hasn't mellowed". Spokesman-Review. (New York Times). p. 16.
  12. ^ "U.S. Ski Team breaks with Bill Johnson". Tuscaloosa News. Associated Press. May 23, 1985. p. 18.
  13. ^ Fiedler, Frank (May 22, 1985). "Johnson's role still a big puzzle". Bend (OR) Bulletin. p. D-2.
  14. ^ a b "Bill Johnson plans return to ski team". Bend (OR) Bulletin. UPI. August 1, 1985. p. D1.
  15. ^ "U.S. Olympian Bill Johnson hurt". Eugene Register-Guard. Associated Press. December 13, 1986. p. 13D.
  16. ^ "Olympic downhill champion Bill Johnson is hurt in spill". Gainesville Sun. Associated Press. December 13, 1986. p. 3C.
  17. ^ Johnson, William Oscar (December 21, 1987). "Uphill in the downhill". Sports Illustrated: 66.
  18. ^ "U.S. Alpine team picked". Bend (OR) Bulletin. UPI. February 3, 1988. p. D4.
  19. ^ "Bill Johnson left off U.S. Olympic team". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. February 4, 1988. p. 24.
  20. ^ Mossman, John (March 11, 1988). "U.S. Ski Team suspends unconcerned Bill Johnson". Associated Press. p. 4D.
  21. ^ "Johnson fights". Spokesman-Review. February 14, 1988. p. D2.
  22. ^ "Bill Johnson retires". Eugene Register-Guard. Associated Press. February 22, 1990. p. 4D.
  23. ^ Moffett, Dan (April 14, 1984). "Skier Johnson a modern day Downhill Racer". Palm Beach Post. p. A1.
  24. ^ "Gold medal winner Johnson enjoys new celebrity status". Spokesman-Review. Associated Press. May 4, 1984. p. 27.
  25. ^ Thomas, Jim (May 6, 1984). "A confident view of life". Bend (OR) Bulletin. p. E1.
  26. ^ Akre, Brian S. (May 13, 1985). "Bill Johnson: Hypocrisy forcing downhill racers to form pro circuit". Spokane Chronicle. Associated Press. p. C1.
  27. ^ Smith, Sid (May 25, 1985). "Actor shedding his ugly duckling image". Deseret News. (Chicago Tribune). p. 8A.
  28. ^ "Going for the Gold: The Bill Johnson Story". (TV movie). 1985. Retrieved February 11, 2014.
  29. ^ a b Canzano, John (January 21, 2016). "Bill Johnson – Olympic champion in alpine skiing – dead at 55". The Oregonian. Retrieved January 21, 2016.
  30. ^ "Bill Johnson hurt on ski mountain". Lodi News-Sentinel. Associated Press. March 23, 2001. p. 13.
  31. ^ Donahue, Bill (February 2002). "End of the Run". Outside Magazine. Retrieved February 11, 2014.
  32. ^ Canzano, John (February 2, 2010). "Winter Olympics hero Bill Johnson remains at home on the mountain, even after pain replaces fame". The Oregonian. Archived from the original on February 11, 2010. Retrieved February 4, 2010.
  33. ^ Erskine, Chris (February 4, 2010). "Life catches up to skier "Wild Bill" Johnson". The Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on March 12, 2010. Retrieved March 3, 2010.
  34. ^ "Skier Bill Johnson's health in decline". The Seattle Times. February 9, 2012. Archived from the original on February 24, 2014. Retrieved February 13, 2013.
  35. ^ "Bill Johnson's health deteriorating". ESPN. Associated Press. July 17, 2013. Retrieved February 8, 2013.
  36. ^ Canzano, John (February 15, 2014). "Bill Johnson remains a fearless, and tireless, competitor". The Oregonian. Portland, Oregon. Retrieved January 21, 2016.
  37. ^ – race results – Bill Johnson

Further reading