OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. — Five years ago, C.R. Johnson was struck by another skier as they were filming cliff jumps at a Utah resort, a collision that nearly cost him his life and put him in a coma for 10 days.
Despite a difficult recovery, Johnson made a determined return to the sport he loved, skiing down some of the world's steepest terrain. His skill and daring had made him a medal winner in the Winter X Games, a favorite of those who produce movies about extreme skiing and earned him a reputation as a top-notch skier even among America's Olympians.
This week, the 26-year-old died as he had lived, after falling and hitting his head while trying to negotiate a steep, rocky chute at Squaw Valley, near Lake Tahoe's north shore. It was a run he had conquered frequently in the past. An autopsy Thursday listed the cause of death as blunt force trauma to the head.
Johnson's death served as a reminder to Olympic alpine medalist and friend Julia Mancuso of why she skis. She recalled how he battled back from his head injury and returned to the mountains as quickly as he could.
"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.
She dedicated the run to Johnson.
Johnson died on the slopes of his childhood ski resort just as he was making a comeback on the professional ski scene. This winter, he finished third in the prestigious Red Bull Linecatcher event in the French Alps. Johnson had even worked with ski designer 4FRNT to develop his own ski.
Johnson's recovery was physically and emotionally difficult, said Christopher Jerard, publisher of Freeskier magazine, based in Boulder, Colo. He asked the magazine to profile his comeback a year after the accident.
Jerard said it was too early then.
"His brain took awhile to heal," he said, adding that Johnson was considered a top professional before the accident. "He certainly wanted to be that again quickly and I'm sure that was frustrating to him. But he came to a place that was like enlightenment."
In recent weeks, the magazine made the decision to profile Johnson again.
On Wednesday, he was skiing with friends in the Light Towers area of the resort when he fell face-first, then spun around and struck the back of his head on rocks. He was wearing a helmet.
Johnson was well-known at Squaw Valley, a resort that is known for its steep terrain and long runs. It hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics and has been a training ground for generations of Olympic skiers, including 1988 gold medalist freestyle skier Johnny Moseley.
His father was an avalanche forecaster at Squaw for about a decade.
Tom Kelly, who coached the women's U.S. Olympic ski team in 1984, said Squaw's steep runs provide a great training ground for skiers to push themselves.
"People learn to ski fast because you can lose time on the flats," Kelly said. "We have not only some of the best advanced training, we have some of the best beginner training because that's where you learn to make up time."
Mancuso credited Squaw Valley's challenging terrain with teaching her how to ski. Yet the features that make the resort so alluring to the best skiers also make it potentially dangerous. Johnson is the fifth skier to die on Squaw Valley's slopes over the past three years. Two of them died in avalanches, including a member of the ski patrol.
Johnson's childhood was spent perfecting his technique on Squaw's chutes and bowls. By the time he was a teenager, Johnson already had developed skills beyond his years, said longtime friend Robb Gaffney.
He said Johnson was a pioneer in taking tricks off the terrain parks and onto the open mountain.
"We just watched him bloom as a professional skier," Gaffney said. "He was the first skier in the world to do a quadruple 360."
Johnson, whose first name was Charles, competed professionally 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.
In December 2005, Johnson was badly injured while filming at Utah's Brighton ski resort and had to relearn to use his arms and legs. He spent 34 days in the hospital.
In a clip posted on Freeskier.com, Johnson recalled "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."
Friends said Johnson emerged from the accident with a newfound appreciation for life. As each year passed, his skiing improved so much that he was returning to the top of his skills.
"He just showed you can come back and conquer and enjoy the life you love. That's what he was doing," said Gabe Schroder, promotions manager at Smith Optics, a ski goggles and helmet company that was the only sponsor to stick with Johnson after he was injured.
Schroder said he is mystified by Johnson's death on familiar slopes.
During a scene in the 2003 ski film "Immersion," Johnson talked about growing up with Squaw as his playground. The shot was taken with him standing on top of the run where he died, Gaffney said.
"It was a place where people skied all the time," Gaffney said. "I know it's a difficult line that he skied, but it was kind of a freak accident."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.