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Bill Johnson (1960 - 2016)

GABRIEL DUVAL / AFP / Getty Images

Bill Johnson (1960 - 2016)

Bill Johnson, the Olympic skier who was the first American to win gold in alpine skiing, died Thursday after a long illness, according to the Associated Press. He was 55.

Johnson made history in the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. Downhill skiing events had long been all but guaranteed to Olympians from France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland – countries that actually had alps. But when the brash westerner showed up, a native of California who learned to ski growing up in Boise, Idaho – he predicted he'd beat them all.

What Johnson told the press in the days leading up to his Olympic victory was, "You can start writing your story. This course was designed for me, and everyone else is here to fight for second place." While a little braggadocio is no surprise in the athletics world, nobody really believed that Johnson would win in a European-dominated sport. At best, his opponents dismissed him, though some were a little annoyed with his arrogance. One competitor, Austria's Franz Klammer, referred to Johnson as a "nose picker" after his boast, according to People magazine. "I got in their heads so badly," Johnson told the Oregonian.

But when it came time for Johnson's downhill run, he proved himself right, blowing past the competition and winning gold. He became a U.S. media darling, cocky and handsome as he told the press in the wake of his victory, "I'm the fastest, best glider in the world right now."

A 1985 TV movie capitalized on his popularity. "Going for the Gold: The Bill Johnson Story" starred Anthony Edwards as Johnson.


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Johnson's success continued as he took other victories in 1984, but a 1986 injury kept him out of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, and he retired from skiing in 1990. He would attempt a comeback in 2001, gunning for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. But a serious crash during a training run destroyed that comeback, putting him in a coma for three weeks and leaving him with a traumatic brain injury.

Johnson was no longer able to live on his own and experienced health difficulties for the rest of his life. He experienced a series of small strokes over the years, and in 2010, a major stroke left him unable to sit up or use his right hand.

Johnson was born March 30, 1960 in Los Angeles. He is survived by two sons, Tyler and Nick.

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