On February 16, 1984, Bill Johnson becomes the first American man to win an Olympic gold medal in downhill skiing, a sport long dominated by European athletes. Johnson quickly became a national hero, though his fame was short-lived, and he never again competed in the Olympics.
William Dean Johnson was born March 30, 1960, and grew up in a working-class family in Oregon. He was frequently in trouble as a child and was once was arrested for stealing a car. In January 1984, the little-known Johnson, then 23, became the first American man to win a World Cup downhill race, at Wengen, Switzerland, and he boldly predicted he would take home a gold medal the following month at the Olympic Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.
To the amazement of the skiing world, the prediction came true on February 16, 1984, when he finished the men’s downhill with a time 1:45:59 and beat Switzerland’s Peter Muller, a favorite to win the race, by .27 seconds. Johnson won two more World Cup races that season. However, his newfound fame seemed to go to his head and his brash, cocky personality alienated many in the ski community. Additionally, Johnson lived a lavish, hard-partying lifestyle and stopped winning races. In 1988, he was left off the U.S. ski team for the Olympic Games in Calgary.
At age 40, Johnson attempted to stage a comeback and qualify for the U.S. ski team for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. However, in March 2001, he suffered a devastating crash at the U.S. Alpine Championships at Big Mountain Resort near Whitefish, Montana. The crash put him in a coma for several weeks and left him with brain damage. Fifteen years after the accident, Johnson died on January 21, 2016. While Johnson was the first American man to win an Olympic medal in downhill skiing, Gretchen Fraser was the first American to win an Olympic medal in the sport when she won gold in slalom in 1948.