In 2006, Johnson became the youngest U.S. Olympic ski jumper in history when he competed at the Torino Games at age 16. "A lot of people kind of looked at me like, ‘Really, how old are you?'" Johnson recalls. "It was fun, it was a really fun experience." Still recovering from a fall a week earlier at the World Junior Championships, Johnson was a member of the U.S. squad that finished 14th in the team competition in Torino. During the summer of 2009, Johnson's preparations for his second Olympic appearance in Vancouver hit a major snag when he suffered a torn ACL in a jumping incident. However, in Oct. 2009, his teammates said that they anticipated Johnson being ready to jump again by December.
Estimating that he's been on skis "since I could walk," Johnson began ski jumping at the precocious age of three. "My dad used to be a long time coach and athlete of skiing jumping and he took my sister [Alissa] and I up there," Johnson recalls, "and all the coaches kind of decided that age three you're too young to be hucking yourself off some ski jumps, but just like any younger brother, I followed my sister up and went without anyone noticing. Afterwards there were like, ‘Oh well, maybe he's not too young, he can do it.'" Johnson's older sister, Alissa, finished 20th at the 2009 World Championships in women's ski jumping. Though there was a strong push for women's ski jumping to be included on the 2010 Olympic program, women's ski jumpers will not compete in Vancouver.
Growing up, the Park City, Utah, native idolized Finnish ski jumping star and four-time OlympianJanne Ahonen of Finland. "He was just so good at such a young age and then it was crazy when you finally get on the scene and you're competing against them," Johnson recalls. "Its like you really can't have a favorite ski jumper anymore because you're competing against them." Ahonen, a four-time Olympian, retired after Torino but has announced his plans to compete in Vancouver as he chases his first individual Olympic medal.
Unlike the U.S. Alpine, cross-country, freestyle, nordic combined and snowboard teams, the American ski jumpers do not have any affiliation with the U.S. Ski Team. In 2008, the national body decided to terminate its men's ski jumping program and drop funding for the sport. That left ski jumping athletes with their families and any willing backers to organize an initiative on their own. The independent program, called Project X, is headed by Johnson's father, Alan. It has no formal corporate sponsorship and instead relies on a patchwork of private donations. The program's athletes, including all three of the U.S. representatives in Vancouver, help raise money by going door-to-door and reaching out to local businesses. They raised enough money to hire a full-time coach, German Jochen Danneberg, normal hill silver medalist at the 1976 Innsbruck Games and two-time winner of the prestigious Four Hills tournament, but have little surplus to cover travel expenses.
Unlike most other ski jumping fans, Johnson had the unique experience of having already met Swiss ski jumper Simon Ammann when the Harry Potter look-alike won gold in both individual events at the Salt Lake Games. "He had been in Park City a couple years prior, in training camps," Johnson recalls, "and I was only twelve [in 2002], but I was a forejumper for the Olympics. So I was up there, in my jumping stuff. I wasn't a competitor, but they sent a twelve-year-old to test the event." Johnson recalls being impressed with the way Ammann carried himself, and continues to carry himself. "It was cool to see someone that wasn't a huge name in the sport just kind of come out and do his thing," Johnson recalls. "Not get hung up on, you know, the title of the event. And he's still just as modest as he was."
Ski jumping purist
Considering that he'll be approaching his second Olympics at the age of 20, Johnson is fully aware that he has a chance to compete at four or five Games in his career. "Of course I've looked that far ahead, but I kind of want to take it with a grain of salt I guess," he says. "You never know when you start to lose interest in a sport, sometimes you just have to walk away. I love the sport, I love everything I do with ski jumping and so the second that it starts turning into a profession - if I'm ski jumping going for number of Olympic games - I'm not really a ski jumper. I'm here because I love it."
As the pilot for the USA-1 bobsled, I broke a 62-year gold medal drought when my sled, the 'Night Train" won the Olympic title at the 2010 Vancouver Games. A degenerative eye condition nearly caused me to quit my sport in 2008, but corrective surgery restored my vision to 20-20.