Breezy Johnson, the top U.S. downhill skier, pulls out of Olympics with heartbreaking injury

USA's Breezy Johnson trains on the eve of the Women's Downhill as part of the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italian Alps, on January 21, 2022. (Photo by Jure MAKOVEC / AFP) (Photo by JURE MAKOVEC/AFP via Getty Images)
Breezy Johnson was an Olympic medal favorite in the women's downhill. (Photo by JURE MAKOVEC/AFP via Getty Images) (JURE MAKOVEC via Getty Images)

Breezy Johnson's journey to the 2022 Olympics began with a ruptured ACL, continued with more torn ligaments and a pandemic, and brought the bubbly American skiing star "some of the lowest points of my career and life." But, she said, "also some of the biggest highs."

As the Games neared, Johnson began accelerating down European mountains, faster than she ever had. She entered 2022 second in skiing's downhill World Cup, as the top U.S. alpine medal contender not named Mikaela Shiffrin.

Then, on Jan. 8, with the Olympics less than a month away, she crashed in training and cut her knee.

Two weeks later, she crashed again, and "immediately felt a massive crack," and then a gut-wrenching reality setting in.

"Sorry, guys," she announced on Tuesday. "I just can't."

Johnson withdrew from the Olympics, citing "a large chunk of cartilage" in her knee "that is partially dislodged." She said she considered pushing through it, flying to Beijing and competing anyway. She decided it was neither "realistic" nor "smart."

And so, after a "roller coaster" four years, she was heartbroken.

"I wanted so badly to realize my dream of becoming an Olympic Champion," she wrote. "To bask in the glow of that sunset. But the reality is that the risks, and there are always risks, are no longer worth it."

Breezy Johnson's journey

Johnson became intimately familiar with those risks in the fall of 2018, several months after finishing seventh in her Olympic debut and setting her sights on Beijing. That September, she tore her right ACL in training. She missed the entire 2019 season. While preparing for the following year, a "freak accident" sidelined her again. She tore her left PCL, MCL and joint capsule, she said. "I tore some cartilage off the bone," she added. Another months-long recovery awaited her.

And yet, all she wanted to do while enduring monotonous rehab was return to the hill. Alpine skiing, she acknowledged, "deals injuries to about 100% of its athletes," but she loved it — always has and still does. She became enamored as a child in Idaho. As she grew into an Olympian, the 80-mile-per-hour thrill made her feel alive.

When she couldn't experience it, during those 22 months between competitions, "my mental health suffered a lot," she said. She documented her struggles after the ACL tear in a series of journal entries, or "patient notes," that she published on U.S. Ski and Snowboard's website. "I’m scared. I’ll admit it," she wrote in the first one. In the third, two months after the injury and shortly after a second operation to deal with a skin infection, she said: "This is hard. Really hard."

In the next, she described feeling "anxious and depressed." She wanted to run, to jump, to ski, to feel in control of her body and her life again, but she wasn't. She instead felt "bound to a set of rules that I hardly understand and that seem to constantly tell me no." She watched World Cup races, and cheered on teammates and competitors, but truthfully, she wanted to beat them. She felt her "muscles trying to jump out of my skin and into my television screen," to do just that. She simultaneously worried, and wondered whether she'd ever get back to her best.

VAL D'ISERE, FRANCE - DECEMBER 16: Breezy Johnson of Team United States during the warm up of the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Downhill Training on December 16, 2021 in Val d'Isere France. (Photo by Alain Grosclaude/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
VAL D'ISERE, FRANCE - DECEMBER 16: Breezy Johnson of Team United States during the warm up of the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Downhill Training on December 16, 2021 in Val d'Isere France. (Photo by Alain Grosclaude/Agence Zoom/Getty Images) (Alain Grosclaude/Agence Zoom via Getty Images)

She hated that uncertainty, and the patience it required, so she pushed — back from the first injury, then again from the second. She worked with Alex Cohen, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee's sport psychologist, and others, to regain control. To set modest goals. To recapture her stability and speed.

She returned to the World Cup circuit in 2020. She returned to podiums, again and again, in 2021. Now years removed from the injuries, she was skiing better than ever before. Only the reigning Olympic champion, Italy's Sofia Goggia, stood between Johnson and Olympic downhill gold. Even after her first training crash, which she initially described as a "tumble," she was named to the 11-woman U.S. alpine team, as its top medal contender outside of Shiffrin.

She returned to snow in Cortina, Italy, last week, at the site of the 2026 Olympics, with an Instagram post that proclaimed, "I'm baaack."

But on the second day of downhill training, after a blistering first day, she landed awkwardly and flew into the netting that borders the course. An MRI soon diagnosed torn cartilage. Surgery would be necessary. The Olympics, she realized, would have to go on without her.

"This sport is brutal," she wrote Tuesday. "Someone asked me yesterday why we do it. And at times like these you wonder. But the truth is that, for me, the feeling of racing is the feeling of being truly alive, and so I will keep coming back every time. Because that feeling of skiing fast is worth everything.

"Luckily," she continued, "I've been a big fan of ski racing since I was a little kid. So while I always wanted to win an Olympic gold medal, I have a lot of other goals in ski racing. Goals that I can work on for the next four years. Before I return, hopefully, to the hill that stole this Olympic dream from me, for another shot at that gold medal."

She concluded with two words — "2026 baby" — and hashtag: "#lfg."Let's f***ing go.