The top candidate to become Idaho’s next Olympic skier attacks World Cup race courses the same way she did her home mountain.
Breezy Johnson, 21, earned U.S. veterans’ attention with her fearless, aggressive style last season and secured a spot on the U.S. Ski Team’s A team for 2017-18. That puts her right in the middle of the competition for spots in the Winter Olympics in February in South Korea.
Johnson grew up in Victor, on the eastern edge of Idaho, and skied at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort across the border in Wyoming.
“My parents … they weren’t, ‘Be timid because you’re a girl,’ ” Johnson said. “That’s a crazy mountain. We’d just huck ourselves off of any rock we could find, go down these super narrow tree chutes. … It’s not about not being scared. It’s about not letting that define your actions.”
Replace the rocks with starting lines and the trees with gates, and you have the race-day version of Johnson.
“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.”
Fittingly, Johnson spends most of her time in the downhill and super-G events — the fastest, scariest events in alpine racing. She plans to add the super combined this season, which includes a speed run and a slalom run.
“I’m probably a little better at downhill (than super-G),” she said. “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 is coming off a breakout season on the world stage and a significant injury suffered in a brutal crash.
She finished 10th and 11th in downhill races and 16th in a super-G last season. She finished 18th in the World Cup downhill season standings.
She made the U.S. world championships team, under similar criteria as the Olympic team, and posted finishes of 15th in the downhill and 28th in the super-G as the youngest American there. Her promotion to the A team is worth about $25,000 in additional team support, which covers expenses that were her responsibility last season, she said.
The 2016 U.S. downhill champion attributes her ascent to many factors: maturity, experience, improving strength and technique, and a ski technician about whom she raves. She spent the summer trying to take more strides in strength and technique.
“Things kind of clicked in my mind, so things started to go well,” she said of last season. “It was time for that to happen, I guess. I’m not the most technically strong skier. … I really have that advantage that I can really charge and go for it, but I don’t always have the prettiest skiing.”
She endured one particularly ugly moment in March at the World Cup Finals in Aspen, Colo. She did the splits and a somersault during a downhill run.
The result was a tibial plateau fracture in her left leg. She was back on snow in July and calls the recovery “really easy.”
“It was a lot better than what they originally thought,” she said.
She’ll make her return to racing next week at the Lake Louise World Cup event in Alberta, Canada. Her leg isn’t a concern.
“I’m feeling really confident with where my skiing is at right now,” Johnson said. “I’m not worried so much about the injury. It’s just a nerve-wracking time of year. Let’s race and figure out who’s good.”
Olympic qualification is a bit of a muddy process but it’s primarily based on World Cup results from the current ski season. The maximum roster of 22 skiers is shared by the men’s and women’s teams, with a maximum of four starters per event. The number of potential distributions of those roster spots makes it impossible to say what it will take for Johnson to qualify.
But if she performs like she did last season, she’ll be in contention. She was fifth among Americans in the World Cup downhill standings last season but only five spots out of third.
“Obviously the Olympics are the pinnacle of the sport and we all want to do well, we all want to succeed,” Johnson said. “That’s a blessing and a curse. It’s hard to have that much pressure.”
She likes that skiing uses a season-long criteria instead of a single qualifying event. That fosters teamwork, she said.
“Without (teammates), I would be nowhere, because they’ve taught me so much,” she said. “We have one of the best women’s downhill teams in the world. … That helps us in training because we know exactly where the pace is.”
Someday, Johnson might be that pace-setter.
She’s progressing, well, fast.
“She’s definitely a great talent,” U.S. coach Paul Kristofic told AP 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.”