Western’s Breezy Johnson is in many ways a typical college student.
She talks about her course load with an occasional roll of her eyes to indicate the amount of work that is shortly needing to be delivered to her professors; her battered iPhone is never far from her hand. She contemplates, like all students, how her career path after college will turn out.
But Johnson’s path is different than most of ours; it is marked by gates, covered in snow, and always begins at the top of a very, very tall mountain.
Johnson, a native of Victor, Idaho, just finished her third season as a member of the U.S. Ski Team, specializing in the World Cup alpine speed events such as the Downhill and the Super G. Downhill is her specialty: fewer gates, more speed.
Despite the fact that she is currently on crutches due to a scary fall in the last race of the World Cup season in Aspen, Johnson’s easy smile and bright eyes exude a level of confidence that comes with knowing you are one of the few people in the world who can do what you do—fly down a snow-covered mountain at speeds reaching 80 mph, faster than almost anyone alive.
We sat down with Johnson to talk about the ski season, her hopes for the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, and how she juggles all her responsibilities while focused on one thing: being fast.
First, your injury. Are you going to be OK?
I fractured my tibial plateau. That sounds bad, but really, it could have been way, way worse. I’ll be off the crutches soon and can begin training again this summer, so I should be fine for the upcoming season.
What brought you to Western?
I love the Pacific Northwest, so I knew that I wanted to go to school out here. I visited Western and loved it, and the university was super accommodating about my schedule and the fact that I’m overseas so much of the year. I was also admitted to the Honors Program, which was great because I didn’t know anyone on campus when I got here but immediately was part of a fabulous community through that program and met lots of great people. I haven’t picked a major yet, but I’m leaning towards English. I can’t get enough Shakespeare.
What is your schedule like?
I train in the spring and summer, off my skis and working on fitness. That happens year-round, really. Then in the fall the team begins training together as a group, and winter is all about the World Cup season from November through March. There’s a break for the holidays, but other than that, it’s a different mountain each week until the season is over. Then I’m back at Western for spring quarter, and the cycle starts over again.
Have you ever skied Mount Baker?
No. When I finally get to Western each spring, it’s so nice to leave all my skis at home and just come to school, and focus on my studies.
How hard is it to make that transition, from an ultra-competitive international ski season to classes and Shakespeare?
I love it. It’s so different. On the mountain, only one person can ever win any race. But in class, at least theoretically, everybody can get an A. In the ski season, you don’t really get to methodically check off boxes and be finished with things; it always just continues to the next thing to do. In class, I finish a paper and turn it in; it’s done. I work hard on it and hopefully do well. And unlike a downhill race, you don’t have to be perfect to succeed.
What were the highlights of this past season?
It was an amazing year, full of ups and downs – I had my first top 10 finish, in the downhill at Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy, and an 11th-place finish at Lake Louise in Canada. So that was great. I was second on the U.S. team in the downhill, behind only Lindsay (Vonn) heading into the final two races, which were on the Olympic course in Jeongseon in Korea and at Aspen. Two courses I really like. Then I had falls in both of those last two races, dropped from second to fifth on the team, and fell to 18th overall in the World Cup downhill standings.
So that wasn’t the way I wanted to finish at all, and finishing fifth is important because the Olympic team is only made up of the top four in each event. So I know it’s right there for me, I just have to produce the results I’m capable of.
How do you put those two races out of your mind as you prepare for the upcoming season?
For the most part, they are already gone. You learn and you move on. You can’t do what we do and never fall, it’s impossible. We’ve all been there, and we’re all going to be there again. So when it happens, all you can do is go back up the hill and try harder.
What’s it like, to fly down that hill that fast, on the edge, the way you do?
There’s nothing like it. Your mind and your body are absolutely, 100 percent firing as one. For those two minutes, you are engaged in a way that is unlike anything else I have ever done.
What is going through your mind in the starting gate up at the top?
You’re mentally going through what you need to do, thinking about your training runs and what the coaches have told you. You prepare to execute your plan. And, of course, the minute you leave that gate, without fail, your plan goes completely by the board. And you just let your training take over.
Do you have a ritual in the starting gate?
Most of us do our own thing. I stomp my feet, make a lot of noise, and jump around a lot to keep my body warm. The noise tends to freak people out.
What’s something about the World Cup season, or downhill racing in general, that most people who casually watch the sport from their couches don’t know?
Oh, there’s tons of stuff. Like, most folks in the U.S. have no idea how popular skiing is as a spectator sport in Europe. The courses are PACKED with people—like 50,000 people coming to watch a race and line the course! It’s crazy! Another thing is that most people don’t realize how much work it is to get us ready to race—and how vital ski technicians are to our success. My tech, Ales Sopotnik, is like my Yoda. I couldn’t do it without him. Getting the skis’ edges ready and perfect for each athlete is an art—and then you factor in the boots and the rest of the gear … it’s incredibly difficult. And these guys get basically zero sleep during the season because they are working all night to get our stuff ready for the next day.
What’s it like being a part of the circuit? Are there rivalries with other countries?
Not other countries as much. Sometimes, like any competition, folks will have personalities that clash, but for the most part, everyone really supports everyone else, regardless of nationality. For example, the U.S. team is generally really good friends with the girls from the Scandinavian countries like Norway and Sweden. They are all ultra-friendly and speak perfect English, so that is great. And some of the Italians don’t speak a word of English, but they are just crazy and super fun girls and a blast to be around.
Between the World Cup and, hopefully, the Olympics next winter, it’s shaping up to be another busy year. But you’ll have 126,000 Western alums and 15,000 current students cheering you on.
It’s going to be an amazing year, I truly believe that. So much to look forward to and prepare for. And to my professors, don’t worry, I’ll have my Shakespeare with me—and I can’t wait to come back to Western next spring after the Olympics— hopefully with many stories and a medal to share.