Meet Breezy Johnson, maybe the next US ski star

Andrew Dampf
The Associated Press
United States' Breezy Johnson competes during an alpine ski, women's World Cup downhill race, in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy — A natural feel for the fall line — the most direct route down a mountain. It’s what every ski racer wants but only a select few have.

Breezy Johnson has certainly got it, and that’s why she’s considered one of the brightest young downhillers on the U.S. Ski Team.

“Her strong suit is that she always charges,” Lindsey Vonn said. “She never holds back. She always skis with aggression.”

Kind of like Vonn, the most successful downhiller of all time.

“Yeah, I would say it’s similar,” Vonn said. “Even if she makes a mistake she keeps fighting. … She has a lot of confidence in herself and she knows what she’s capable of doing and that’s not always the case, especially with young skiers when it’s their first or second time on a new track.”

Johnson, who just turned 21, is setting career bests from one race to the next on the World Cup circuit. After an 11th place in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, she improved to 10th last weekend in the Cortina downhill — the premier race on the women’s circuit. She has finished in the points — top 30 — of every race she’s entered this season.

Not bad for an athlete who is still on the U.S. ‘B’ team and has to fund her own travel and training around Europe.

“She’s definitely a great talent,” U.S. head coach Paul Kristofic said. “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,” Kristofic added. “She’s a natural born downhiller.”

Last season, Johnson won a downhill on the second-tier Europa Cup circuit then claimed the U.S. downhill title in Aspen, Colorado.

Now she’s pushing her older teammates for one of the four starting spots that the U.S. gets for the Feb. 12 downhill at the world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Johnson is the youngest of the 23 racers — men and women — that U.S. coaches selected for worlds. And if she keeps progressing, she could be an athlete to watch at next year’s Pyeongchang Olympics.

Johnson is highly teachable and realizes where her weaknesses are.

“I don’t have the same technique as a person like Lindsey or a person like Mikaela (Shiffrin),” Johnson said. “I don’t stand over the skis quite as well yet and I don’t move as cleanly in between the turns so I try to work on that and focus on that for race day.”

Training with Vonn helps.

“When you’re training with Lindsey you know where the bar is, you know where you need to be,” Johnson said. “Even besides Lindsey there’s a lot of people who have a lot of different skills on the team who can bring their piece of the puzzle in. Laurenne (Ross) is a really good technical skier, Stacey (Cook) is a great glider, Jackie (Wiles) is a hard-core charger.”

U.S. speed coach Alberto Senigagliesi, who is Italian, likes to compare Johnson to Dominik Paris, the Italian who won the classic Hahnenkamm downhill in Kitzbuehel, Austria, earlier this month for the second time.

Paris is a big, muscular, hard-charging, old-school downhiller who makes up for what he lacks in technique with aggression.

“The way Breezy handles the speed with her feet and lets the skis run through the turns without using the edges remind me of Dominik,” said Senigagliesi, who coached Paris for three years. “She’s always seeking the fall line.

“She always has her best run in the race, which is the key in our sport,” Senigagliesi added. “She’s a race horse and she has the mind of a champion.”

While Johnson is not quite as big as Vonn, she is quite powerful.

“If she continues to work at it she could really have an imposing physique, which can make the difference in women’s skiing,” Senigagliesi said.

Johnson first got on skis at the age of three in the driveway of her home in Victor, Idaho.

“We have a little pitch on our driveway and we had some little skis that were left over from when my brother learned to ski,” she said. “That’s how you learn to stand on two sticks.”

Johnson’s father was a racer and her first coach.

She learned to race in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, just over the border from her home in Idaho. Johnson spent weeknights training under the lights of Snow King on hard and icy conditions then ripped through powder on the weekends at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Johnson was a “huge” fan of Bode Miller and also admired Vonn and Julia Mancuso.

She was named Breezy after her grandmother’s neighbor, although her ski technician calls her “bresaola,” after the dried, Italian beef.

“It kind of sounds like Breezy and he think it’s really fine meat that’s really muscular,” Johnson explained.

Off the slopes, Johnson is chatty and giggly.

“She knows everything about everything, from politics to gossip. And in skiing she has all the rules memorized,” Senigagliesi said. “For the most she’s fairly reserved but once she starts talking she doesn’t stop.”

Just like her skiing.