The Nature of Gold

The events of history often revolve around a search for gold. From 400 years ago Columbus setting sail with three ships to today’s prospectors wandering the Yukon and the panhandle of Alaska, men are driven with the desire to accumulate gold. With the Olympics upon us, another quest for gold takes precedence. The Talking Heads on the flat screens will be randomly ranking each athlete’s chances and bemoaning the slightest bobble that “cost them the gold”. On the other hand, talk to any athlete about the experience of the Olympics, and the event, the actual gathering of athletes becomes the focus.

Three stories.


For several months I framed with Mark in California. One lunch we started talking about sports and high school. I mentioned I swam in high school and college. He mentions he swam breaststroke and IM. We talked about our choices in picking a college. He went to UCLA on a full ride. I turned down the recruiters from a couple of Midwest schools and chose an academic path. I asked how he did on the full ride.

“I took a gold in the 100 meter at the last Games.”


“I’m still just a carpenter.”

Maybe, but he coached a local kid’s team and gave them a great model for their future choices as a swimmer.


In 1984, Billy Johnson won the first Olympic Gold Medal in the Downhill for the US Ski team. In 2000, with his life in tatters, he turned to ski racing as a way forward and began training to return the US ski team in time for the Park City Olympics in 2002. In March of 2001, dropping into the Toilet Bowl on Whitefish Mountain‘s running of the Doug Johnson Memorial Downhill and the NorAm speed event finals, he slipped back on his skis, slapped his uphill ski on the snow to regain his balance. His skis split directions and, at roughly 70 miles an hour, he face planted into the hardened snow of the downhill course. He slid through three fences before stopping. Unconscious, he'd bitten through his tongue and it lodged in his throat closing his airway. They performed an emergency tachometry, loaded him into a sled for transport to a waiting helicopter thinking he wouldn’t make it to the chopper. Once on the chopper, they didn’t think he’d make it to the hospital. Practicing at the hospital is a world-class brain surgeon and he didn’t think Billy would make it through the operation. When he did, the opinion of every one involved was that he would be severely disabled, unlikely to walk or talk again. He remained in a coma for months finally starting to come out in late May.

One year after the accident, he returned to Whitefish to thank the folks that helped him out. He talked up a storm and carved racer chaser turns down the mountain to the spot of the accident. Everyone following him skied like banshees just to keep him in sight. Mentally, he lost a few steps on the rest of us. His standard line meeting someone became something along the line of “I’m Billy Johnson, and I won the Gold medal in the Sarajevo Olympics” and then he’d pull out his gold medal which he kept in his pocket at all times.


Phil Mahre was Billy’s teammate at the Sarajevo Olympics and medaled Gold in the GS. At a press conference in 1994 establishing the White Pass Winter Carnival as a special fundraising event for Seattle’s Children’s Hospital, Phil was asked what he thought of the potential poor showing by the US team in the coming up Olympics.

His response. “I won my medal in Sarajevo. It was one minute thirty eight seconds of my life. You guys ought to be more concerned that today kids in Sarajevo are being shot in the streets by snipers and the town's in the midst of a civil war, not how many gold medals we’ll get in the Olympics.”

That day the press assembled in front of Phil at his home ski area because of his Gold Medal, but he wanted them to look beyond and see the need to raise money for Children’s Hospital and for them to be aware o the disintegration of life in the city hosting the Olympics he participated in.

In Billy’s case, all he could hold on to was his Gold Medal.

In the case of both Mark and Phil, they turned their medal into a platform to increase responsibility and awareness of community needs. The medal was a minute and some seconds of each of their lives and they recognized it as such. And moved on.

We are lucky in Fernie. Emily Brydon, our hometown Olympian, already uses her position to bring access to sports and activities to local youth. In a few short years the Emily Brydon Youth Foundation brought hundreds of kids into skiing, provided access to a broad variety of other activities from art to the Fernie Writes Conference.

This month, Fernie will be riding on Emily’s skis. We’ll be cheering her down the course and hoping for a Gold. But the real gold already hangs around her neck. She understands and believes in using her position to better the opportunities of those following her.
That’s a podium few stand on. A podium that lasts a lifetime, not a minute and some seconds.

And a podium everyone in Fernie appreciates.

Go Emily. Go.