She’s not your typical Whatcom County alpine skier.
She’s never competed in the downhill skiing leg of the annual Ski to Sea Race. Never thought about jumping the Baker Road Gap – in fact, she’s never even stepped into a pair of skis at Mt. Baker Ski Area.
But if all goes as planned over the next month and a half, she could give local fans someone to root for in a third-straight Winter Games when the Olympics kick off Feb. 9 (Feb. 8 in Whatcom County) in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Meet Breezy Johnson, a 21-year-old sophomore English major at Western Washington University and the latest Winter Olympics hopeful with Whatcom County ties. She’s attempting to follow in the footsteps of U.S. women’s hockey player Karen Thatcher, who was a resident of Blaine when the Americans won a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games, and U.S. freestyle skier Angeli VanLaanen, a Bellingham High graduate who finished 11th in the freeskiing halfpipe in Sochi, Russia in 2014.
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“This is something I’ve been dreaming of since I was a little kid,” said Johnson, one of America’s top young downhill talents. “Getting to the Olympics would be crazy, but anything can happen. ... I’m just trying to push myself to greater heights and podiums.”
Unlike VanLaanen, who became the first Bellingham-born Winter Olympian after growing up on a pair of skis at Mt. Baker, Johnson was raised in Victor, Idaho, on the eastern edge of the state and right across the border from Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
It was there that Johnson began molding a fearless, aggressive style that helped her secure a spot on the U.S. Ski Team’s A team for this season – her third with the ski team – and opened the door for her to reach Pyeongchang.
“Her strong suit is that she always charges,” U.S. superstar Lindsey Vonn told The Associated Press. “She never holds back. She always skis with aggression.”
“It’s my ‘me’ time”
Turns out Johnson attacks everything with that same single-minded focus, and that’s a big part of why she has yet to ski Mt. Baker.
She attends Western only during the spring quarter, allowing her time to train and compete with the U.S. Ski Team during the fall and winter. During her time in Bellingham, skiing is one of the furthest things from her mind.
“When it comes to school, I’m there for school,” Johnson said of her time at Western. “I’m not there for skiing. It’s my ‘me’ time.”
In addition to being a student at Western, she said her “me” time involves enjoying many of the outdoor activities Bellingham has to offer during the spring, including running along trails and going down to Boulevard Park to enjoy the waterfront – an opportunity she can’t get in eastern Idaho.
That was part of the reason she chose to come to Bellingham for school. She also liked the size of Western’s classes and said her professors have helped her work ahead for the few times her demanding schedule requires her to be away from Bellingham during the spring.
“I wanted to do something different, and I think Bellingham and Western gave me that opportunity,” Johnson said. “I’ve always loved the Pacific Northwest, and this was the perfect opportunity for me.”
Having a skiing community around, isn’t a bad thing, either, even if she doesn’t hit the hill while she’s in the area.
“I love the community and the fact that skiers are around,” Johnson said.
Does that mean she’s interested in giving Whatcom County’s annual Ski to Sea Race a try?
“It seems kind of intense,” she said. “Maybe I’ll get a group of friends together and try it some day. It’s got skiing, biking and running, right? I’m not a good biker – I’d have to do the skiing part. That sounds like fun.”
At least it sounded like fun until she learned competitors need to lug their skis and poles 1,000 feet up the mountain before skiing down.
“That’s crazy!” she said. “I only go up if there’s a lift to carry me up ... or a snowmobile.”
“You really feel on the edge”
When she does get a ride to the top, Johnson has proven she’s among the fastest at getting back down a mountain.
She specializes in the downhill and the super-G – alpine skiing’s fastest, most dangerous events – though she plans to add the super combined this season, which combines a speed run (downhill or super-G) and a technical slalom run.
“I’m probably a little better at downhill (than super-G),” Johnson told the Idaho Statesman. “I love them all. I think super-G is the hardest event there is. There’s no training runs. The speed is almost as fast as downhill but the gates are often half as far apart. You really feel on the edge, like, ‘These gates are flying at my face and I’m going to die.’ … That makes it really rewarding.”
Johnson has proven that she’s at the top of her game when she’s skiing on the edge, as she had a breakout season last year.
For as young as I am as a speed skier – I’m the youngest person at my level – there is a lot of pressure to keep improving at that same kind of meteoric level.
“She’s definitely a great talent,” U.S. coach Paul Kristofic told the Associated Press last winter. “She’s not your greatest technical skier yet, but she has improved a lot. There’s been a lot of downhillers like that that have great natural instincts to go fast, and that’s one of the hardest things to teach — the ability to let the skis run under all circumstances, and that’s what she’s really good at. She’s a natural born downhiller.”
In her first full season on the World Cup, she finished 11th in a downhill at Garmisch, Germany, and 10th at Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, qualifying her to go to the World Alpine Ski Championships in St. Mortiz, Switzerland.
There, as the youngest member of the U.S. Ski Team, she finished 15th in the downhill and 28th in the super-G. Johnson, who also had a 16th-place super-G finish at Lake Louise, Canada, qualified for the World Cup Finals in Aspen.
“Last season was a great season – getting my first top 10 and making the World Championship team,” said Johnson, who won the U.S. national downhill championship a year earlier. “I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself. For as young as I am as a speed skier – I’m the youngest person at my level – there is a lot of pressure to keep improving at that same kind of meteoric level. I try not to be too hard on myself, either way.”
“Making progress every day”
It was at the World Cup Finals in Aspen last March that Johnson got a reminder of how quick things can change, as her season skidded to a horrific end in a heap of ice, Spandex, skis and ski poles.
“You can look it up on YouTube – Google ‘Breezy Johnson crash,’” Johnson said. “I lost control going around a gate and did the splits, then a cart wheel, and I ended up fracturing my tibia. My tibia and femur got in a fight, and my femur won.”
Fortunately, Johnson said she did not tear the ACL in her knee, as she originally feared after the wreck.
She spent much of the spring quarter in Bellingham on crutches – “It wasn’t too big a deal,” she said, “but there are a few hills on campus that took a lot of work to get up and down. I was late to class a few times.”
Unable to bear weight on the leg following what was diagnosed as a tibial plateau fracture, she focused on her nutrition to help her bones grow and heal and getting stronger through other activities, such as swimming at the Wade King Student Rec Center.
“I was about making progress every day,” Johnson said. “I’m always very improvement oriented. I’m not always focused on winning – I want to be better than I was yesterday. It motivated me and gave me some time off from skiing.”
“Rooted in reality”
The time off didn’t seem to hurt Johnson. She was back on the snow in July and was working out with the ski team as it prepared for the winter season earlier this fall.
“I didn’t want to end last season the way it did,” Johnson said in November. “Nobody knows how good you’ll be until the season starts. ... I feel like I’m totally back from it, and I’m feeling good.”
Now that the ski season has started, her results seem to have picked up where she left off before the accident.
At the Dec. 1-3 World Cup season opener at Lake Louise, Canada, she started with a 10th-place finish in the downhill. She followed that up with a DNF the downhill a day later and a 25th-place finish in the super-G the day after that.
She added a 29th-place finish in a super-G Dec. 9 at St. Moritz.
The qualifying process for the Olympics, based primarily on World Cup results from this ski season, is a bit convoluted. The U.S. Ski Team can take 22 skiers from the men’s and women’s teams combined to South Korea and start a maximum of four skiers in each event.
With that much flexibility in the roster, it makes it impossible to say what it will take for Johnson to qualify, but accumulating as many strong finishes as she can during December and January competition and showing her coaches she’s capable of challenging the top skiers in the world is crucial.
“Obviously the Olympics are the pinnacle of the sport and we all want to do well, we all want to succeed,” Johnson told the Statesman. “That’s a blessing and a curse. It’s hard to have that much pressure.”
And if the results don’t work out her way and she doesn’t get an invitation to Pyeongchang this year, there’s always 2022 in Beijing.
“I try to keep myself rooted in reality,” Johnson said. “I don’t let myself get too far ahead. I keep moving forward.”
“This is my dream”
Though she doesn’t allow herself to plan ahead much further than the next race, she knows the window to ski competitively won’t last forever.
“I wish I could,” Johnson said. “This is my dream job, but science has not prevailed, and we can’t be elite athletes forever. I’ll finish my degree and look at going to business school or law school.”
At the pace she’s going, Johnson said she could be sticking around Bellingham for a number of springs to come. She said she figures to attend Western during the spring quarter for the next eight years.
“That sounds like a lot,” she said, “but on the bright side, that would be about the time when I’m winding down my ski career, so to speak. It would be a nice transition to be done with school at the same time as I’m done competing. I just want to enjoy both as long as I can. This is my dream.”
It’s a dream Whatcom County will be happy to share with her, even if they don’t see her on any nearby ski slopes.
Western Olympic athletes
Former Western Washington University students known to have competed in the Olympics:
▪ Scott Shipley (slalom kayaker, 1992, ’96, 2000): Poulsbo native dropped out of Western after one year to pursue a trip to an international circuit race in Colorado. He went on to finish 27th (Barcelona), 12th (Atlanta) and fifth (Sydney) in the men’s kayak singles, slalom in Olympic competition.
▪ Charles Rutherford (rowing, 1972): Coached by WWU Hall of Famer Bob Diehl before helping the U.S. place fifth in the men’s coxed four in Munich, Germany.
▪ Allen James (race walking, 1992, ’96): Native of Sacramento, California, finished 30th in the men’s 20 km walk in Barcelona and 24th in the event at Atlanta.
▪ Herm Nelson (race walking, 1992, ’96): Renton native finished 32nd in the men’s 50 km walk in Barcelona and was disqualified in the same event in Atlanta.
SOURCE: WWU athletics