July 25, 2013

An American Ski Story


In the wake of Bill Johnson’s decision to take himself off of life support, John Norton reflects on the American skiing icon and his time spent in Crested Butte. This column was printed in the Crested Butte News and reprinted here with John’s permission.

Update: Bill Johnson passed away Thursday, January 21, 2016.  

News reports have it that skier Bill Johnson is close to death, and, by the time you’re reading this he may have died. At age 17 Bill, busted for boosting cars and car parts, was given a choice: go to jail or go to a ski academy. Not surprisingly, Bill chose the academy where he found that he could go fast on snow. In 1984 at age 24 he became the first American man to win a World Cup Downhill and a month later he won Gold at the Sarajevo Olympics.  Later that year he won Downhill Gold in Aspen and Whistler.

Wrecks ruined his career and he never won again but in US Skiing history only Bode Miller has won more Gold in the Downhill.

In 1988 Bill came to work for us at the ski area. He fit here. He was brash and so were we. He didn’t swim with the blue-blooded US Skiing crew and we were standing outside the mainstream of ski areas, having run competitive ads against Aspen and Vail for years that didn’t even show skiing. He won Olympic Gold and we were the fastest growing ski area in the west.

Bill was a frequent dinner guest at our house on Butte Avenue. It was our habit in those years to play Big Boggle, a word game, after eating. Because the five Nortons played so often we were used to chewing up competition for dessert. Bill was the exception. Where he saw PHILOSOPHY in the cubes, we saw only HIS, SHIP and SLOP. He was the most dominating Boggle player we ever played.

Start your history lesson at 0:50, his gold medal winning run starts at 4:20.

I was with Howard Peterson, head of US Skiing, shortly after he announced his pending retirement. What was your worst failure, Howard? No question about it, he said, it was our handling of Bill Johnson after Sarajevo. We had some great skiers but Bill was the one who transcended our sport, the one guy that people who knew nothing about skiing wanted to touch. He was our Ali. And we screwed it up. Bill was a gunslinger and we wanted him to join our system but it wasn’t right for Bill and our system isn’t what made him great. I’d really like a do-over on that one.

Bill told me the story this way: I owed the Ski Team almost nothing. I came into that season in the best physical shape of my life, and I did that on my own running in the California mountains and carrying logs while I was doing it. I paid my own way to Europe and onto the Europa Cup circuit. I was broke and eating whatever food my roommate and I could scrounge, filling our pockets with race table leftovers. And I was killing it and so got called up to the World Cup and then the Olympics. Then I won and the Ski Team wanted to step in front of me and Atomic, me and Raichle, me and all the money that was going to come my way. That really, really pissed me off. Yeah, it’s true I hit that coach but he was in my face.

US Skiing was used to working with house pets and found itself with a wild animal.

Bill told me the story of Franz Klammer calling him a nose-picker at Sarajevo: So I’m just up on the team and the World Cup ski press is asking me why I’m even suiting up for the race, what the hell am I even doing here? And I don’t know quite what to say because I wasn’t used to the attention, so I say I’m here to win, which I assume is the same reason everyone is here, but I don’t say it in a bragging way, just matter of fact. And then the ski press runs off to Klammer and the Austrians, who owned the speed events, and say Bill Johnson is saying he’s going to win the race. That’s when Klammer called me a little nose-picker and that was a great line that gets reported everywhere all over the world. And then I said to myself f**k it, I’m going to win the downhill.

When we would host media here we would all not so much ski with Bill as watch Bill ski. Bill could take all of Hawk’s Nest in five or six turns and anyone who ever saw that display would quickly understand that there is a qualitative difference between the best recreational skiers and a guy who won World Cup Downhills. We would make ten or 15 turns to his one.

After we moved to Aspen Bill’s relationship with the ski area dissolved. He would visit us in the Roaring Fork valley with his model-beautiful wife Gina and their two boys. He was operating out of a motor home, skiing the west.

Then he lost a son to a hot tub and, after, his marriage ended. In 2001 at age 40, attempting a comeback at the US Nationals, a training run crash ended his career and almost ended his life. He couldn’t walk, and lost most his memory.

He would send me email birthday cards most years and allow that he didn’t know how we knew each other. I would explain. I would also tell him he was the best Big Boggle player the family ever met. He wasn’t playing Boggle anymore.

Then a bunch of little strokes and one big one put him in a hospital. It’s in character that he won’t stand for the feeding tubes any longer.

Back in the day Bill told us how he got so good at Boggle: On the Europa Cup, my roommate and I were broke and we only spoke English and we travelled around the European villages and no one spoke English. So every night we shook the cubes, and played for hours and hours until we fell asleep. I was lonelier and more miserable than I had ever been, wondering how long I could put up with this ski racing life, and Boggle kept me from completely unraveling. We just played and played and played.

I wish Bill’s life played out a different way, but maybe it was all written from the very start. His was quite a trajectory.

You can reach John Norton at

About the Author

2. Will Dujardin
Will Dujardin is our content editor at West Elk Project. He competes in big mountain competitions and coaches the Crested Butte Mountain Sports Team. Skiing is his life and he likes to mix it with other fun things like DH mountain biking and traveling.