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Original Issue

CARRYING THE TORCH

AN OLYMPIC SKIER'S RISE IS A STORY HER GRANDFATHER WOULD HAVE LOVED TO WRITE
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HERE IS a story that Bill Johnson would have embraced. 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, where, under the byline William Oscar Johnson, he did his best work covering the Olympics. "He adored the sports of the Olympics," says T.J. Johnson, youngest of Bill's three children, "and he adored the athletes. He loved telling their stories."

Stories like this one: On Feb. 11 in South Korea, a moguls skier competed in her event for Team USA. She was No. 10 in the season rankings (and No. 4 on the U.S. team, the strongest in the world). And she was here because many years ago her grandfather was a journalist, traveling the world covering ski racing. And because sometimes he would take 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, Colo., to work with an SI photographer.

That man met a young woman who had also come to Vail in search of direction. 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 was here, preparing to ski down a hillside. And by now you probably already know the best part: That Olympian was Bill Johnson's granddaughter, Tess Johnson.

Last fall, NBC Sports asked Tess to fill out a questionnaire. One of the questions: 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. On the morning of Feb. 7 in PyeongChang, Tess said, "Everyone who knew my grandfather have all told me he's smiling down on me right now."

After five years at TIME magazine, Johnson moved to SI in 1967. His byline appeared on the '88 exclusive on Ben Johnson's steroid disqualification from the Olympics and the Pete Rose gambling scandal. Johnson covered ski racing in the winter. He wrote cover stories on downhill gold medalists Bill Johnson (no relation) in '84 and Tommy Moe in '94.

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 away, and he had been diminished by Alzheimer's in his final years. After he left SI in 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. Johnson would draw for his grandkids. "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 story of all.