Born in a Wyo blizzard, Breezy Johnson skis up a World Cup Storm
December 30, 2021
VICTOR, Idaho - U.S. women's downhill ski champion - Wyoming native Breezy Johnson - races into three World Cup events in January after storming the podium earlier this season and nipping the heels of the reigning Olympic gold medalist. With just weeks to go, the Beijing games are in her sights.
With three second-place finishes in three downhills this season, Johnson is closing the gap on Italy's Sofia Goggia, trimming the leading speedster's victory margins from more than a second to mere tenths.
Flying down serpentine ice-clad alpine courses at more than 85 mph, Johnson challenges Goggia's unparalleled turn-carving talents with strength, consistency and mountain savvy - hard-earned and hard-nosed qualities that are often undervalued on the global stage.
Born in a Jackson Hole blizzard 25 years ago, Johnson was forged by Teton mountain slopes, racing at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Grand Targhee and Snow King Mountain. Her father, a skier who worked on local ski-race crews, first launched her down an inclined subdivision road outside her home in Victor, Idaho when she was 3 years old.
Mom is an attorney, dad supervises a construction crew. Breezy Johnson and brother, Finn, grew up as part of the Wydaho community just over Teton Pass and Wyoming state line, before she attended Rowmark Ski Academy, a private prep school, in Salt Lake City.
Johnson pushed off in her first International Ski Federation race in 2011. She broke onto the European scene in 2016 and placed seventh in the 2018 Olympic downhill in PyeongChang, South Korea.
But a twist of fate changed her trajectory. In 2018 and again in 2019 she tore knee ligaments, injuries that kept her off the snow for agonizingly long stretches.
"I'm not very good at sitting around," Johnson says. While sidelined, "one of the only things that I could work on was my fitness."
"I wanted to be getting better," she says. "I wanted to feel like I wasn't just coming back to the World Cup, you know, broken and less. I wanted to come back better."
NBC sports commentator Steve Porino, a former U.S. Ski Team downhiller himself, witnessed an evolution that produced what he says is the second fastest women's downhill racer in the world today. He sketched a profile.
"She's the strongest woman they've ever had on the U.S. team," Porino said. "She's a beast.
"Breezy was always told she wouldn't make it, [that] she was not a good enough technical skier," he said. Technical skills are those that allow a skier to execute tighter high-speed turns and follow a shorter line to the finish. They involve tilting a ski on its edge to carve flawless arcs without losing speed by side-slipping or smearing the snow.
Johnson has compensated for what she lacks in technical skills, Porino said, with strength, bravery and tactical intelligence. "She really defied the conventional wisdom," he said.
The relatively few tighter turns of a downhill course are, "not where she's going to win the race," Porino said. Instead, she excels where the course setters turn the athletes loose.
Johnson, he said, "is very comfortable at speed."
In her latest downhill at Val d'Isere, France, the course radar clocked Johnson at a higher top speed than Goggia. Although Johnson finished about three-tenths of a second behind the sub-two-minute first-place pace, she reached more than 70 mph.
Johnson is a good glider, said Paul Kristofic, her head coach. "She's very powerful in long, sweeping turns."
"She's also very smart," he said, probing every race course looking for segments where she can make up time.
"She studies a lot of video of herself, of the athletes she's competing with," Kristofic said. "She works very closely with her [speed] coach," Alex Hoedlmoser.
Her strength keeps her on the course at incredible velocities, Porino said. "You can be pulling three Gs in a turn," he said. "Most of that force is on one leg - 500 pounds - on one leg."
Johnson "rarely makes tactical errors," Porino added. "She consistently hits the bullseye" without overreaching. "She has a tremendous understanding of what she can and can't do."
That's critical "when you're traveling 70 mph, going 100 feet per second over a blind jump," he said. "You pick a spot in the valley 10 miles away or you look at a mountain crest," he said of the downhiller's challenge hitting the perfect line. Unseen below is the ideal but very small landing spot.
"A matchbook - that's your target," he said. If a skier misjudges slightly, "by the time you land you're 10 to 15 feet off-line."
Johnson "is like a quarterback who can read the defense and see everything on the field," he said. "That's who she is."
"I was good but not great," Johnson says of her teenage ski years. "I started to realize the likely prospect I might fail at ski racing."
Reality set in, as did a work and study ethic.
"One of my coaches [Bob Poehling] had worked with Lindsey [Vonn] back in the day," she says, "and he was like, 'One of the reasons that she's the best female skier in the world, is because she's the strongest, she's the biggest.'"
"People who work hard don't always end up on top," Johnson says. "You can't always control what happens at the end of the day. You don't always get the fairytale ending."
But, "if you want to see something great you have to risk something terrible," she says. Champions want it hard enough that "they are willing to get their hearts broken if they fail," she says.
"Very few people live their life that bravely."
Downhillers' bravery extends to the mountain, where they overcome the gut-wrenching terror of traveling at Interstate speeds in a skin-tight suit while balancing on two 6-foot-long planks.
"There's a piece of you that is screaming 'You're gonna die!'" Johnson says. "But over time that voice gets quieter to me."
"You're using like 100% of your body and 100% of your mind - all focused on this one thing, which is going fast," she says. "And it's a really cool, very alive feeling. I've never quite found the 100% doing anything else.
"A race course," she says on Instagram, "is my happy place."
Johnson doesn't need to follow the leader either.
"The layman may see there's only one fast way [to ski a] course," she says. "But if you are an expert right now watching, you see that my style versus Goggia's style is very different. There can be multiple ways to run."
And different ways to grow up, mature, build yourself, she says.
"Don't be afraid to be different and to be fierce about things," she tells up-and-coming girls. "Don't be afraid to be unlikable.
"There will always be people who say 'Have more fun. Do it this way. This is the best way,'" Johnson says. "And they say that particularly to women because they don't trust that women know what they want.
"I would say, as a female out there, don't be afraid to push back on that and say, 'This is what I want, what I want to do.' "Don't be afraid to want it badly enough that it might break your heart."
World Cup skiers are rock stars in Europe, drawing the attention that NFL players attract in the U.S. Today, Johnson might walk through St. Moritz, Switzerland, without drawing a second glance if she's not wearing her ski team jacket.
"I'm not that cool in Europe," she says. "I'm kind of just this oddball American who's not Mikaela Shiffrin."
Perhaps surprisingly, her home hill - gnarly, cliff-studded Jackson Hole - also is not well known to Europeans.
"They're like, 'Where's that?,'" she says. "'What's its relation to Whale?'
"I'm like, 'You don't understand - my resort is better than Vail, better than Aspen." she says. "In Europe one of the things that makes you - puts you on a map as a big resort - is hosting a downhill."
Johnson wants the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to host a World Cup downhill. Ideally, Salt Lake City would again host the winter Olympics in 2030 and the last race before them would be on her home mountain.
Jackson Hole hosted one World Cup downhill in 1975. Austria's Franz Klammer won the men's race, Switzerland's Marie-Therese Nadig the women's.
"I traveled the world," Johnson says. "I realized after a while that Jackson was the best. I want to be able to say, 'Yeah, I'm from Jackson, that place that held that sick World Cup and showed how cool of a mountain it is.' That's part of my goal."
Coach Kristofic sees Johnson's technical skiing improving. "It's heads and tails further ahead than a year ago," he said. "She's absolutely driven to be the best. She's pushing the envelope of what's possible right now."
The American ski audience will soon grow from about a million to 40 million, broadcaster Porino said, as the Olympics are aired in February. If all goes well, those viewers will see a gem.
"She really does embody this American downhiller spirit," he said, that's historically been characterized by individuals making a unique mark. "She's her own person," he said.
There's another quality, perhaps beaten into Johnson's character by the Wyoming winds, weathered into her persona by cold Teton temperatures and a Rocky-Mountain lifestyle that helped turn a zephyr into a 5-foot eight-inch tornado.
"The nastier the course gets," Porino said, "the worse the conditions [are], the better her odds get. That's the sand in the oyster that created this pearl."
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.