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Breezy Johnson, top U.S. downhill skier, to miss Winter Olympics

Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup - Women's Downhill Training

VAL DI FASSA, ITALY - FEBRUARY 25: Breezy Johnson of USA in action during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women’s Downhill Training on February 25, 2021 in Val di Fassa, Italy. (Photo by Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)

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Breezy Johnson, the world’s second-best female downhill ski racer, will miss the 2022 Winter Olympics after tearing cartilage in her right knee in a training run crash last Friday.

“I’ve always wanted to win the downhill globe [season title]. I’ve always wanted to win an Olympic medal,” Johnson, a 26-year-old who returned from one of several prior knee injuries to race at the 2018 Olympics, said by phone from Europe on Monday. “So, to be in this position where I felt within striking distance for both until this happens, and now you never know if those things are going to happen again, makes it really hard. You just really feel how close you can come, and then it can all be taken away from you again.”

Johnson has been the top U.S. Alpine skier the last two seasons aside from Mikaela Shiffrin.

This season, she finished second to 2018 Olympic champion Sofia Goggia of Italy in each of the first three World Cup downhills. Then Johnson suffered a small meniscus tear in her right knee in a separate training crash on Jan. 8.

(Goggia crashed in a super-G on Sunday, causing leg injuries that will make it challenging for her to race at the Olympics. It’s possible the Olympic downhill includes neither of the world’s top two women.)

Last week, Johnson planned to race on the World Cup for the first time since Dec. 19 and that Jan. 8 crash. But she flew off a jump in the second training run before Saturday’s downhill, landed and felt a big crack in her knee.

Johnson got up and skied down the course in pain. An MRI revealed a cartilage impaction tear. She had the option of trying to ski on it at the Olympics, but on Saturday night decided not to after doctors told her that delaying surgery would significantly lessen her chances of competing next season

“I’m not sure that I’m physically capable of going down a downhill course,” Johnson said. “I don’t know that one race, that I definitely would be, in some capacity, limping through, is worth a whole season next year. Like, is worth the risk and the potential reinjury.

“I’m already an Olympian. So I guess that factored in. I don’t need to go to say I’m an Olympian. I’m trying to go to these Games because I want to win a medal.”

She had second thoughts after learning that Goggia, after Sunday’s crash and injuries, still planned to race at the Olympics.

“That’s just a natural part of this process,” Johnson said. “You don’t make a hard decision about this and just never look back.”

In March 2017, Johnson, an Idahoan like Picabo Street and who idolized Lindsey Vonn, did the splits and somersaulted down the course in the World Cup Finals downhill. She escaped with just a tibial plateau fracture, returned to skiing four months later and made her first Olympic team the following winter.

She was the youngest woman to finish in the top 10 in the 2018 Olympic downhill (seventh), auguring well for the future.

But Johnson missed the following season after tearing her right ACL in a training crash. Before she could return to competition, she tore her left PCL and MCL in a June 2019 giant slalom training fall.

She went 22 months between races, spending months at a time sleeping with her knees on bolsters. Johnson struggled with depression.

“When I was injured last time, I had no idea if I would be good again,” Johnson said Monday. “Today, I feel a lot more confident that if I work hard, I will come back and be able to be on podiums and win races.”

She returned to ski racing in 2020. In her first full season back, she placed third in four consecutive World Cup downhills (her first podiums) and finished the season ranked fourth in the world in the event.

This season, she went a step higher. Before being sidelined, Johnson was the only woman to finish within nine tenths of a second of Goggia in any downhill.

“I felt like I was skiing as well as I’ve ever skied,” Johnson said. “I felt a little invincible.”

If Goggia has to miss the Olympics, then a healthy Johnson would have been favored to become the second U.S. Olympic women’s downhill champion (joining Vonn).

Johnson spoke with Vonn before announcing her Olympic withdrawal.

“There’s not really a lot that I can say that will make her feel any better,” Vonn said. “She’s making a smart decision, and she’s going to be ready for next season. I think she can take solace in knowing that she prepared the best way she could, she was fit and ready to execute.”

The two have a mentor-mentee relationship dating to 2015, when a 19-year-old Johnson first joined the U.S. team and inspected race courses with the legend.

“The same way I feel an obligation to my team, I feel an obligation to Lindsey, to live up to her legacy,” Johnson said. “You know, my success is like a part of her success. It’s hard to be like, sorry, I can’t do it.”

Vonn tried to rush back from her own right knee injuries to defend her Olympic downhill title in 2014 and ultimately had to withdraw.

"[Johnson] is going to carve her own legacy into the World Cup by coming back next season,” said Vonn, who returned to break the women’s World Cup wins record and earn a 2018 Olympic bronze medal before retiring in 2019. “And just because she misses this Olympics doesn’t mean that she’s not going to have more opportunities.

“This will just drive her some more. That’s the kind of person she is.”

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