It’s incredible to think of all the great U.S. alpine ski racers our country is sending to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, in a little more than a month. We have had one of the strongest ski teams in the world over the past eight years, racking up the kind of medal count the European countries who once dominated us used to expect to bring home.
For the upcoming Games, there are high hopes that alpine icons like Lindsey Vonn, one of the greatest racers to ever step into a binding (and who was barely slowed down by a back injury in December), Ted Ligety (who already has two gold medals) and, of course, Mikaela Shiffrin, perhaps the most talented ski racer in the world right now (who at the 2014 Games became the youngest Olympic slalom champion ever at the age of 18) will continue to add to the podium count. The U.S. will be also a dominant player in figure skating and snowboarding—a sport we invented—as well as in women’s hockey and even men’s hockey since professional players have been allowed to fill out the roster, and Russia won’t be there due to a doping scandal. All of which will make for games worth watching and thinking back on just how we got here.
Look back over the history of international ski racing and you can find page-long lists of heroes from countries like Austria, Switzerland, Italy and France. But for the U.S. there are only cult figures, whose histories mirror the biographies of one-hit wonder rock bands, despite their deep contributions to the sport.
That list starts with skiers like Washington State’s Gretchen Fraser who first won gold in slalom in 1948 and Andrea Mead Lawrence, a Vermont native who in the 1950s was the first American to win two Olympic medals at the age of 19 before moving to California where she became a leading conservationist. It includes Aspen legend Dick Durrance, one of the first Americans to ever compete against the Euros, who you have certainly seen in black and white photos swooping through the powder in a forward leaning tuck with no goggles or hat. And it includes Picabo Street, Tommy Moe, Billy Kidd and Steamboat’s own Buddy Werner, who for decades was the only American to ever win Austria’s famed Hahnenkamm, until Daron Rahlves won it in 2003 on a fog-shortened course.
I remember watching twin brothers Phil and Steve Mahre racing down the steep, icy slopes of Whiteface (also known as “Iceface”) at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics. That was during the famed “Miracle On Ice” games where the U.S. Hockey Team, a ragtag group of college kids, won gold after finding a way to beat the Soviet juggernaut.
But only Phil Mahre would medal for the U.S. in alpine skiing, earning silver behind Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark, who, with 86 World Cup wins in slalom and giant slalom, is still internationally regarded as the greatest skier who ever lived.
In the lean years that followed, our country’s only highlight, and only certifiable star, was Bill Johnson, a charismatic, risk-taking loudmouth from Los Angeles who became the first American male to win gold when he took the downhill in the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, after weeks of telling everyone he would.
Johnson, who died in 2016 at the far too early age of 55, set the tone for the mix of independence, swagger and reverence for the growing influence on the sport of ski racing that we have now—inspiring the trademark risk-it-all style of Bode Miller (my personal favorite racer of all time), Rahlves, Vonn, Ligety and Shiffrin, and whoever comes next.
As a journalist, I covered the Utah, Italy and Whistler Olympics, and I watched Bode win two silvers in Salt Lake, wash out in Sestriere (where Ligety won his first gold in combined), and finally win gold in the combined in British Columbia. But my favorite ski racing memory came when I was a young ski bum in Jackson Hole and a U.S. divisional qualifier came to town, with a downhill race on Après Vous, the mountain’s south-facing slope.
At the chairlift, I found myself in the singles’ line, waiting to ride the double chair with any number of people in helmets wearing race bibs across their skintight suits. When the guy I got on with noticed me reading his name, B. Johnson, written in black marker on his Atomic downhill skis, he gave me such a sweet, “so what?” smile and said, “I’m just trying to figure this race out.”
There were clouds obscuring parts of the course, which Bill Johnson tried to peer through as we rode the lift. I was too in awe to say much of anything. But at the top of the hill, he smiled again and said, “It’s pretty simple. You just go fast.”
And then he skied off.