January 22, 2016 / 3:06 PM / 3 years ago

Former Olympic champion Johnson dies at 55

(Reuters) - Bill Johnson, who inspired a new era for American ski racing when he became the country’s first Olympic downhill champion in 1984, has died at the age of 55, the U.S. Ski team said on Friday.

Johnson, who won the gold medal in alpine skiing’s marquee event at the Sarajevo Olympics, died on Thursday at an assisted living facility in Oregon after being in declining health for several years.

Johnson burst on to the World Cup scene as a 23-year-old in 1984 with victory at the classic Lauberhorn downhill in Wengen, Switzerland.

He backed up that performance with an Olympic gold in Sarajevo before closing the season with wins in Whistler and Aspen.

Johnson retired from competition in the late 1980s after a number of injuries and personal problems. At age 40, his attempt at a comeback for the 2002 Olympics was derailed by a horrific crash at the U.S. Alpine Championships in 2001.

He remained in a coma for three weeks following the crash before regaining consciousness and although he did ski again, his racing career was over.

Johnson, whose swagger and a rebellious attitude instantly made him a favorite among fans, made steady improvement over the years following the crash but eventually suffered a series of debilitating strokes.

Born in Los Angeles, Johnson was a troubled youth who had several run-ins with the law for stealing cars and burglaries. A judge gave him the choice between spending six months in jail or attending a ski academy.

“I take skiing very seriously, I was forced into it. It was either that or go to jail,” Johnson said in 1984.

Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond

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