Is Breezy Johnson the U.S.’ next downhill champion?
Breezy Johnson, who comes from a place called Victor and wears the motto “Like the Wind,” has this season added a prestigious label in ski racing: U.S. downhill star.
Johnson is ranked second in the world going into the world Alpine skiing championships downhill on Saturday (TV and streaming info here). But No. 1 Sofia Goggia, the daring Olympic champion from Italy, will miss the race at home in Cortina d’Ampezzo due to a broken knee bone.
Johnson, skiing her best in returns from career-threatening injuries, can become the first American to win a world downhill title since Lindsey Vonn in 2009. And the only woman other than Vonn to earn a medal in the last 20 years.
Vonn turned 25 in 2009. Johnson, who turned 25 last month, embraces Saturday’s stage.
“I definitely feel like I’m one of, if not the best downhill skier in the world at world championships,” she told NBC Sports. “I know some people can find that brings a lot of pressure, but great pressure means great opportunity.”
Johnson seized this season, finishing on a World Cup podium for the first time in December. Then matching that third-place result in the next three downhills. When Vonn retired in 2019, it was unknown when another American speed racer would emerge to complement Mikaela Shiffrin‘s overall dominance on tour.
“I like to think that my success is a little bit part of [Vonn’s] legacy because of how much she taught me and how much her success has impacted my career,” said Johnson, who was awed when she first joined the U.S. team in 2015 and inspected race courses with Vonn.
Johnson’s story starts with connections to another U.S. downhill icon: Picabo Street, a fellow freckled youth Idahoan who also hailed from a unique hometown -- Triumph.
“You’re like Picabo, she’s the freckle-faced fighter pilot,” her father and first coach, Greg, a former youth ski racer in New Hampshire, would tell her, referencing Street’s nickname in ski-mad Austria.
“He still calls me that sometimes,” she said.
Johnson was born “Breanna,” but her grandmother convinced her mom to borrow the unique name of a neighbor. Breezy was put on skis in the family driveway for 10-yard glides at age 3. So was older brother Finn.
“Dad pushed her,” mother Heather Noble said, “and I was at the receiving end.”
The family spent days across the border in Wyoming. Not only did Johnson develop on the slopes at Jackson Hole, but her parents also worked in the state. The kids went to school in Wyoming, in part out of caution. A mountain pass periodically closed on short notice due to avalanches, preventing interstate travel.
Sometimes they spent the night with a cousin in Wyoming.
“Sometimes we’d say, ah, screw it, we’ll drive around it, which is like 100 miles,” Noble said.
Johnson’s maturation was on a consistent slope, her mom said. She wasn’t a mediocre teenager like Ted Ligety. Nor a precocious talent like Mikaela Shiffrin.
Actually, a quiet, braces-wearing Shiffrin was an early role model. They first met as roommates for a junior competition in Whistler, British Columbia, more than a decade ago.
“Mikaela was incredibly good, just outstanding, just beat the field, total domination,” Noble said. “Breezy wanted to be that way, and she found a lot of inspiration from seeing this girl who was a year older than she was who was skiing so well and working so hard at it.”
At 13, Johnson moved to Rowmark Ski Academy in Salt Lake City. Her mom joked that Johnson’s biggest obstacle -- before recent injuries in World Cup seasons -- may have been teaching herself AP Calculus while missing half her classes senior year. She still received Bs, according to mom.
“Breezy has a high level of focus and determination, regardless of what the task is,” Noble said.
That was tested in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Johnson came back from a tibial plateau fracture to make her first Olympic team at age 22 in PyeongChang.
She was the youngest woman to finish in the top 10 in the downhill in South Korea (seventh). The ascent suddenly halted. She missed the following season after tearing her right ACL in a training crash, regretting being absent for Vonn’s last career races.
“Perhaps I was born to be a racer because while I love skiing, racing is my true passion,” she wrote in September 2018 in reaction to the injury. “That feeling of flying down a course at 80 miles an hour, body and brain both working at full capacity to try to make you go even faster, that feeling is living. No, I will not miss an Olympics, and World Championships come back around in this sport. But for me the thought of spending 14 months without that true feeling of living, that feeling of racing, kills me a little bit inside.”
Before Johnson could return to racing, she tore her left PCL and MCL in a June 2019 giant slalom training fall. She ended up going 22 months between World Cups, learning to sleep for months with her knees on bolsters, then re-learning it after the second injury. She struggled with depression and broke down in the gym, deprived of her competitive oxygen.
Johnson, an adventurer who has cliff jumped, speed skated and run 20 miles to a hot spring, returned to ski racing in January 2020. She finished fifth in her third World Cup, two weeks after putting downhill skis back on.
“There’s definitely a part of me that wishes I could go back and tell that self that was struggling so much, it will be worth it,” she said last week. “You will get through this, and those things that you fear you might never get to do again, being able to ski fast and being able to accomplish your goals, they are possible and they are absolutely as good as you imagine them to be and better.”
The resiliency is reminiscent of Vonn, whom Johnson said shares advice with this next generation of American speed racers.
“She walked into every venue and every season like, if you break my leg, I will still win,” Johnson said. “If you give me a headwind, I will still win. If my ski flies up over my head in the middle of the run, I’m just going to keep skiing and probably win. Having that kind of confidence and having that willingness to go regardless of your body’s pain, what’s going on in the hill and just ski your best is something I’ve always tried to take from Lindsey.”
This season, Johnson races wearing helmet art stamped with the words “Like the Wind” scribbled at the end of a winding course. It’s a motto and personal hashtag, coined from what she tells baristas when they ask her name. Breezy, like the wind.
World championships are in a special place for Johnson. In 2017, she earned her first World Cup top-10 in Cortina. In 2018, she placed 11th in a downhill there just before being named to the Olympic team.
Johnson set a preseason goal to win a world championships medal. It could come at a course that she calls her “golden child.”
“I hope that, at the end of this, nobody puts a little asterisk on whoever wins saying, well, Sofia wasn’t there,” Johnson said, “because, unfortunately, as we all know, injury is part of the sport. We wish Sofia the best, and we want her back, but the show must go on.”
OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!