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Skiing: 30 years ago, Johnson created U.S. downhill legacy
First Published Jan 17 2014 09:12 am • Last Updated Jan 17 2014 11:40 pm

Wengen, Switzerland • At the Lauberhorn race on Saturday, a potential 10-strong United States team includes three men who have World Cup victories in Alpine skiing’s glamor downhill discipline.

A sixth American win on Switzerland’s beloved slope snaking beneath the Eiger mountain would not surprise, especially if Bode Miller got his third.

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It was not always this way.

Thirty years ago, Bill Johnson changed a Europe-dominated sport’s perception of American skiing.

On Jan. 15, 1984, Johnson’s wild ride in Wengen delivered a first U.S. men’s downhill victory in the 18th World Cup season. All 43 previous American wins were in slower, technical events.

That the brash 23-year-old achieved this in his debut down the course, and after making a spectacular recovery on the fastest straight, was even more remarkable.

"Bill was cocky, he was very, like, arrogant," Miller told the Associated Press in Wengen this week.

"No one had won before and ski racing was considered a European sport. You have to be a little bit cocky, I think, to come in and think you can win."

Johnson’s self-confidence is key to his place in Alpine skiing.

One month after Wengen at the Sarajevo Olympics, he further upset the Austrian and Swiss favorites by boasting they should just give him the downhill gold medal.

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"That blows my mind," Steven Nyman, a two-time World Cup downhill winner, said of Johnson’s style. "He went into some meeting or bar, something like that where everybody was, and he goes in and says ‘I’m going to kick all of your (behinds) tomorrow.’ And everyone was like ‘Man, this guy is crazy.’

"And he went out and did it. Yeah, he was cocky and over the top, but he followed it through," Nyman said.

Again, Johnson blazed the trail for others to follow.

No American had won an Olympic men’s downhill medal of any kind before 1984. (Not including Robert Redford’s victory at the 1968 Grenoble Winter Games in the movie ‘Downhill Racer’, which filmed extensively in Wengen.)

Nyman credits Johnson for helping to create a tradition continued by Tommy Moe getting downhill gold at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.

"After that, he won the Olympics and Tommy won the Olympics and we have a rich heritage after that. We have the respect," Nyman said.

That respect was absent before Wengen — and only grudgingly given after by Johnson’s rivals, recalls veteran Lauberhorn race president Viktor Gertsch.

"They said ‘Who is this guy, Bill Johnson?’ The other top racers did not have too much respect for him," Gertsch told the AP on Thursday.

Gertsch, retiring from his position after 44 years, smiles at the memory of Johnson’s wild win. When his left ski unexpectedly caught an edge, Johnson’s feet splayed and limbs flailed, then he clicked his ankles together and launched into the air, going briefly off course.

"He almost fell there before crossing the bridge to the entrance of the finish S bend," Gertsch recalled. "He was in trouble, he was on one ski, outside, almost in the deep snow."

Johnson’s racing instincts earned him affectionate praise from current U.S. racer Marco Sullivan as "the original American downhill badass."

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