I’ve had to read and re-read this sentence a few times to believe it myself: Breezy Johnson could very well win the 2021 downhill title. To fully grasp the cosmic rarity of this possibility, know that no American male has ever won the downhill title and only two American women have done so: Lindsey Vonn, with her record eight, and Johnson’s doppelgänger, Picabo Street, who won two. In those cases, we could see them coming a year or two away, whereas Johnson was ranked 20th last year. Prior to that, she spent the better part of two seasons injured. As for a preamble, even legendary 1984 Olympic gold-medal shocker Bill Johnson (no relation) gave more warning than Breezy Johnson.
It must be mentioned that Johnson’s chances are greatly enhanced by the fact that Italy’s Sofia Goggia, who leads the downhill standings by 195 points, is out injured for the remainder of the year. In fact, Goggia could still win, if challengers Johnson and Corinne Suter (SUI) cannot average better than third place for the remaining three downhill races.
At first blush, that would seem like a long shot for the American; she’s never finished better than third in her career. Take a second look and note that it was Goggia who finished in front of her each of those races, and at the last World Cup stop in Crans Montana, Switzerland, Johnson was bested by Ester Ledecka and Goggia. With Ledecka racing her snowboard elsewhere this weekend and Goggia sitting out, the path to victory is more open than ever. That’s been borne out in the training runs where Johnson has finished second and first respectively. Though she said rather famously that winning training runs is “like fools gold, shiny but they ain’t worth shit,” there is no denying that this replacement for the canceled races at the 2022 Olympic venue in Yanqing, China has her name all over it.
Val di Fassa is Italy’s go-to training venue for speed. A number of other teams, including the Americans, have also trained there and did so just before the World Championship in Cortina. So, they all know it, and their knowledge is recent. It is a flowing course and, the way it’s been set, has a very long-radius and high-speed turns. There is also some rattle developing in the surface. It’s a confluence of elements in which the American excels. The only thing better would be if it were cloudy and either raining or snowing — challenges the Jackson Hole-native thinks set her apart. Rather, this race will be bathed in sunlight for the entire field.
So, she did something she’s never done before during the bib draw. The top-10 ranked skiers get to pick their start number, any number that remains, 1 through 19, so long as it’s odd. The best typically pick 5, 7 and 9.
“We looked at video at 11:45 (start time) and at 12 noon, and it ain’t gonna get any sunnier, or any faster,” she explained. “I might as well send it No. 1. I’ve never done it before, but I don’t think it will change my approach.”
There will also be another title race in which the screws are tightening. Petra Vlhova started this season on a mission: Bring Slovakia its first overall title. She shot into the lead when she finished on the podium in the first five races of the season, three times as the victor. She won three of the five slalom races this season. But the mid-season emergence of Gut-Behrami has put the Swiss just 42 points behind Vlhova, who has shown signs that her 27-race schedule so far this season is taking a toll on her energy and preparedness. On paper, the calendar suits Vlhova to keep her lead. Eleven races remain, and Vlhova has top-five potential in all disciplines. Four are slaloms, in which Gut-Behrami does not compete.
Ominously for Vlhova, she has been slow in the downhill training. She cannot afford to let Gut-Behrami run uncontested through the weekend, which has two downhills and a super G.
As former World Cup star-turned-Swiss TV analyst Tina Wierather told me just today, “It’s that time of year when you just start looking for ways to conserve energy,” she explained, noting that while Gut-Behrami is firing on all cylinders in GS, super G and downhill, Vlhova is exhibiting signs of fading, surely in her GS. It begs the question: How much training time she will need to feel squared away in all disciplines as she weighs the cost-benefit of testing equipment versus resting the body.
Next week, she’ll be contending with Mikaela Shiffrin who is sitting out the speed events “to go find two seconds in my slalom skiing,” she joked after her bronze medal at worlds. That’s how much she trailed gold medalist Kathi Liensberger, who will also be resting and fine-tuning her technical skills. All the while, Vlhova races. That is to say, slalom and GS points get harder and harder to come by as the season grows long, and the all-rounders face off against those with much lighter calendars.
Whichever way this goes, it is going to go right down to the wire.