PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Here is a story that Bill Johnson would love to have written. Johnson was many things in a life that lasted more than 81 years, until his death in 2012—an author, a cartoonist, a painter. But he is remembered most widely for his 27-year career as a writer at Sports Illustrated, under the byline William Oscar Johnson, and most of all for his coverage of the Olympic Games and its many characters. "My father did not like the politics of the Olympics," says T.J. Johnson, the youngest of Bill’s three children. "But he adored the sports of the Olympics, and he adored the athletes. He loved telling their back stories."
Stories like this one: On Friday morning in South Korea, (Thursday night in the United States) a U.S. moguls skier will compete in the qualifying round of her event. She is one of six 17-year-olds here for Team USA, the youngest athletes in the delegation. She is No. 10 in the season rankings (and No. 4 on the U.S. team, the strongest in the world). And she is here because many years ago her grandfather was a journalist, traveling the world covering ski racing. And because sometimes he would alternate taking one of his three children with him, and because those children fell in love with winter sports. And because, in 1989, one of those children, by then a grown man of 23 who was looking for inspiration in life, accompanied his father to the alpine skiing world championships in Vail to work as an assistant to an SI photographer and just stayed in the mountains.
And because a few months later that man met a young woman who had also come to Vail in search of direction. And because that man and that woman fell in love and started a family of their own and put their own three children on skis. Because of all these things, an Olympian is here, preparing to ski down a hillside, bouncing through a field of moguls and sailing off two giant jumps. And by now you already know the best part: That Olympian is Bill Johnson’s granddaughter, Tess Johnson.
Last fall, NBC Sports asked Tess to fill out a questionnaire full of the type of innocuous queries to which we routinely subject the newly famous (and the almost famous). Questions like: Who is your Olympic role model? And Any hidden talents? And almost at the end, this one: If you weren’t an athlete, what would you like to be doing? Tess’s answer: "I would be traveling the world as a journalist for Sports Illustrated."
It was a sweet homage to a man that Tess only knew very late in his life and very early in hers, the way that children often know their grandparents. Wednesday morning, another cold day in the mountains here, Tess said, "My dad and my mom and everyone else who knew my grandfather very well, they’ve all told me he’s smiling down on me right now and would love to see what I’m doing."
Tess’s father, T.J., says, "It’s pretty remarkable. I’ve had a number of conversations with my brother and sister and we’ve talked about how amazed my father would be by all of this. We really haven’t wrapped our heads around it."
A few words about the grandfather. William Oscar Johnson came to Time magazine from the Minneapolis Tribune after a strike closed that paper in 1962 (he was a prodigy of sorts, having written a comic strip in college that eventually was syndicated in more than 200 newspapers). Johnson wrote more than 20 cover stories in five years at Time, including one on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. He moved to SI in 1967, when the sports magazine was 13 years old. His byline appeared on the 1988 exclusive on sprinter Ben Johnson’s steroid disqualification from the Olympics and also the Pete Rose gambling scandal.
"Bill was a wonderful writer, and the best on deadline I ever saw," says Jerry Kirshenbaum, a retired SI editor and one of Johnson’s closest friends. "He could be gruff and prickly, and didn’t suffer fools. But he was a softy at heart and great company." For many years, Johnson covered ski racing in the winter, and every four years at the Olympics. He wrote cover stories on downhill gold medalists Bill Johnson in 1984 and Tommy Moe 10 years later. (The Moe SI cover, skis dangling in the air above the snow, hands dropped to his boots, is one that Tess remembers seeing hung on the wall of their family room in Vail). Bill Johnson and his wife separated when their children were young, but Johnson often took his kids to ski resorts around the globe. "He gave our family a love of winter sports," says T.J.
That love was transferred to the next generation. T.J. and Carol Frangos, met in Vail not long after both had moved there in 1989. (Since T.J. was working for SI at those ’89 world championships, he had a round-trip ticket; he never used the return trip; Carol arrived six months later, after her graduation from Boston College). They married and put skiing at the center of their family life. Tess was on skis at Beaver Creek when she was two years old, hooked for life. "I love free-skiing in the powder with my friends," says Tess. "I get excited just talking about it."
But powder was soon a hobby. "She just loved to jump and catch air," says Carol. When Tess was nine, Carol fed that passion by enrolling Tess in a Ski Club Vail program called "Jumps and Bumps." When Tess came home after the first class, Carol asked her daughter how she liked the jumping. Tess said, "Mom, we spent the whole day doing moguls." Carol was worried that she had signed her daughter up for the wrong class. Tess corrected her: "No, mom. I loved it."
In sixth grade, Tess entered the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy. At age 14 she was named to the U.S. Ski Team; at 16 she was traveling the World Cup circuit. On Friday, she will ski in the Olympic Games, the pinnacle of her sport. "I want to ski the best I possibly can," she says. "The results will come after that."
It is the tragedy of generations that the youngest of us never see the oldest of us at their best. Tess was 12 when her grandfather passed in the summer of 2012, and he had been diminished by Alzheimer’s in his final years. But Johnson was a man of multiple talents. After he left SI in 1994 (disclosure: I did not know Bill Johnson; it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that he was walking out the front door of the Time & Life Building as I was walking in, late in the winter of 1994), Johnson turned his attention to his latent artistic skills. He did a series of paintings that were displayed in galleries on Cape Cod, where he had spent summers.
The painting helped connect him to his grandchildren. "I remember visiting my grandfather at his apartment in New York," says Tess. "His paintings where everywhere, and they were so beautiful."
Johnson would draw for them. "He drew pictures in all these bright colors," says Tess. "He loved to draw pictures of me skiing. And when he finished, he would write my name on the picture, so I would know it was me." It’s best to think of this as a writer’s most enduring byline of all.