Influential pro skier Johnson dies

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Current Olympians and others in the ski community are mourning the loss of professional free skier C.R. Johnson, who died in a fall while skiing a steep chute at California's Squaw Valley.

Jim Rogers, a member of the Lake Tahoe-area resort's ski patrol, said Johnson was skiing with a group of friends Wednesday when he fell while trying to negotiate a "very, very tight, rocky area."

The 26-year-old Johnson fell face first, then spun around and struck the back of his head on rocks. He was wearing a helmet at the time.

Ski patrol members were called shortly before 2 p.m. but were unable to revive him. Placer County Sheriff's Lt. Jeff Ausnow said Johnson died on the slopes.

Johnson was well-known at Squaw Valley, a challenging resort near Lake Tahoe's north shore that hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics and has been a training ground for generations of Olympic skiers. His father was an avalanche forecaster at the resort for about a decade.

Squaw Valley sports shop worker Susan Joy Rouse said she knew of Johnson as a member of the community who loved to ski and push the limits.

"He was just a sweet boy," Rouse said Thursday morning. "This is what he loved to do. He was known for his love of skiing, pushing the limits and having a great time on the mountains. A lot of people had admiration for him."

Squaw Valley also is the home base for several members of the U.S. ski team, including Olympic Alpine medalist Julia Mancuso.

She dedicated her last run in the Olympics, in Thursday's giant slalom, to Johnson.

"Just hearing the news and knowing ... how much he loved skiing and being able to ... overcome those battles, coming here today for me and after everything yesterday was just, like, go out there and love skiing," Mancuso said, her voice cracking with emotion, after finishing eighth in the giant slalom Thursday.

Olympic snowboarder Louie Vito tweeted his reaction: "RIP to my homie CR Johnson. He will be missed by EVERYONE. At least he was doin what he loved but CR YOU WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN!!!"

Johnson's father was an avalanche forecaster at the resort for about a decade, Rogers said. The younger skier also had rebounded from a serious brain injury suffered during a competition at Utah's Brighton ski resort in 2005 that put him in a coma.

"This is a man of very, very strong skiing talent," Rogers said. "This young man had been a fixture here at Squaw Valley for years. ... He grew up at Squaw Valley."

A statement from Squaw Valley USA described Johnson as a professional skier and member of its Freeride team.

Johnson competed in superpipe and halfpipe skiing at events such as the X Games. He was the bonze medalist in the 2001 Big Air competition and took silver in 2002 Skiing Slopestyle.

"CR was a gifted athlete and an innovator," X Games' general manager, Chris Stiepock, said in a statement.

His 2005 injury, sustained when another skier accidentally landed on him during a run, left Johnson in a coma for 10 days. He spent 34 days in the hospital and several months in rehab, but was back on the snow by the end of that winter. He made steady progress in recent seasons and this winter finished third in the prestigious Red Bull Linecatcher event in the French Alps.

Between 2003 and 2005, Johnson consistently broke the barrier for how high skiers could go in a halfpipe. His 2003 Winter X duel with Candide Thovex was a defining moment for the young discipline, with Johnson throwing a 900 -- a benchmark that stood for several years.

And while such huge air usually cost him a result -- he never finished higher than fourth in the Winter X halfpipe because of crashes -- his influence on today's halfpipe skiers is evident.

"He's the defining person who put halfpipe skiing on the map," two-time Winter X SuperPipe champion Simon Dumont said.

The freeskier.com Web site posted clips of Johnson in several extreme skier movies, jumping off cliffs and sailing through fresh, untracked powder. One clip includes Johnson talking about relearning to use his arms and legs after suffering his head injury.

He recalls "being one of the best skiers in the world, overly confident in your skiing, overly confident in yourself. ... Right now I'm working as hard as I possibly can to return to the sport that nearly killed me."

Squaw Valley attracts expert skiers and is known for its difficult terrain. Johnson is the fifth skier to die on the slopes in the past three years. Two of the five died in avalanches, including one member of the ski patrol.

Attempts to reach Johnson's family late Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Squaw's ticket manager, Ivan McGurk, 37, said he knew Johnson because the young skier was at the resort frequently.

"I think he was an inspiration for both his athletic ability and the challenges he faced," McGurk said. "It's sad, and we feel for his family."

Information from The Associated Press and ESPN Action Sports reporter Micah Abrams was used in this report.