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Launching cliffs and thriving off the adrenaline rush of skiing big mountain terrain may not be the traditional course to World Cup ski racing success, but it’s worked for U.S. Ski Team athlete Breezy Johnson.
The rising star on the U.S. Ski Team grew up skiing at Jackson Hole, Wyo., and even now proudly displays those roots on her race helmet.
“We used to go there and just rip around, jump off cliffs and ski powder,” Johnson recalls. “Jackson is a place where you have a lot of different ski elements, and I’ve taken that into my downhill racing.
“It is also an amazing place to grow up as a racer because you have Snow King Mountain, which has night skiing and the average steepness of the hill is steeper than anywhere else in the U.S.”
Johnson, 25, is currently in the midst of a breakout season on the women’s World Cup Tour, having achieved a quadruple triple over recent weeks. She has sped to four third-place downhill finishes—back-to-back thirds in Val d’Isere, France, in mid-December; another in St. Anton, Austria on Jan. 9; and her fourth third place in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, on Jan. 22.
With four podiums to her name this season, Johnson is a favorite to medal in the women’s downhill at the Alpine World Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, scheduled for Feb. 13.
“She finally had a full practice period where she was healthy and she puts everything that she has into this sport,” says U.S. Ski Team women’s speed coach Alex Hoedlmoser of Johnson.
“On top of that, she’s super strong this year, like a machine.”
Johnson’s success this season is all the more notable given her long history of injuries over the course of her seven-year racing career. In 2018, she tore her Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) at a pre-season camp in Chile, which ended her season before it even began. The very next year, she tore her left Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL) and Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) in her left knee following a crash at a Mammoth Mountain, Calif. training camp. That injury sidelined her until January 2020.
The Victor, Idaho resident has candidly documented her struggles from injury and the internal mental battles that resulted in a series of writing she called Patient Notes.
“I struggled a lot—I think a lot of athletes struggle with depression when they are injured and I definitely did,” Johnson revealed.
“Then I got injured again and my coach was like, ‘It’s a real bummer, because I knew you were going to podium this season,’” she recounted, referring to the 2019-’20 season. “It’s been a very long road.”
Despite—or perhaps, because of—the long road to recovery, the depression, the countless hours of rehab, Johnson appears confident heading into the start gate of Cortina’s famed Olympia delle Tofana track with World Championship medals at stake.
“Cortina is the golden child of the women’s tracks, which to me is both an advantage and disadvantage,” Johnson says. “Ninety-percent of the [World Cup athletes’] favorite track is Cortina, and I kind of have a soft spot for the tracks that people don’t like as much.”
Johnson has competed at the Cortina World Cup on three occasions, all prior to her knee injuries. She snagged a career best 10th in downhill in January 2017, a result that qualified her for her first world championships at St. Moritz 2017.
In preparation for Saturday’s downhill, Johnson finished an encouraging 15th in the world championship opening super-G on Thursday. Previously, her World Cup best was 16th coming in 2016. Due to abundant snowfall, fog and uncooperative weather forcing race cancellations earlier in the week, it appears that the ladies will have just one downhill training run on the historic track.
“One of my goals this season was to win a medal at World Championships and that is still definitely true,” Johnson says.
Italian Sofia Goggia, current leader in the women’s downhill rankings, was favored to win another World Championship Title at this year’s women’s downhill event. But Goggia sustained a season-ending injury in a non-racing crash in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany on Jan. 31., leaving Johnson’s path to a World Championship medal even more clear.
That said, Johnson isn’t taking a medal for granted.
“I want to ski my best and I hope that at the end of this, nobody puts an asterisk on whoever wins, saying ‘Sofia wasn’t there.’”
Brian Pinelli is covering the 2021 Alpine Championships from Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. Follow him on Twitter at @Brian_Pinelli.