When it comes to Sweden’s Emil Johansson, reaching the upper echelon of the mountain biking world was never supposed to happen.
Unlike those who grew up in or around Whistler with a world-class mountain biking in their back yard their entire lives, Johansson’s path to slopestyle superstardom was a lot harder to predict.
Despite describing the sport as “niche” in his area, with just a handful of other mountain bikers in his hometown of Trollhättan, Sweden, it was evident from an early age that Johansson had a passion for the sport.
“Where I grew up, there's nothing. There's just country stuff everywhere. So the fact that I'm doing what I'm doing is just like, it wasn't meant to be. There wasn't a path to it. I found my path. I made a path,” he said.
That path began around seven years old when he got his first mountain bike, mostly just to get to and from school and maybe “jump a few curbs” on the way. A few years later, Johansson got his first real dirt jumper bike and he started hitting the few small trail jumps his town had to offer.
Around that same time, as his passion and excitement for the sport grew, Johansson started looking for bigger and better challenges, which led to him taking the bus to an indoor park an hour from his home where his skill really started to take shape.
“It took me a while to figure out and also convince my parents that this was something I wanted to do, and there was a future in it,” said Johansson. “Of course my mom was scared at the beginning … But after them seeing my passion and my drive and how strategic I am about things, they've been very supportive in helping me the best they can.”
In 2016, at 16-years-old, Johansson burst on to the scene, making a name for himself on the world stage by landing in a top-five spot at four major slopestyle events, including a podium finish at Maxxis Slopestyle where he claimed third-place. He then followed that up with another stellar year in 2017, with five podium finishes out of eight events, leading to the number one ranking in the Freeride Mountain Biking (FMB) Diamond Series Standings.
“Everything went into that [early success]. Basically, choosing riding over anything else,” he said. “It's hard for me to find a word for it in English. I kind of fully lost myself in it. I fell shoulder depth in it. It's crazy to look back and see the success I had so early on, it was obviously something I didn't really expect to happen.”
But equally as quickly as Johansson reached the top of the sport, it all came falling back to earth in 2018.
At first, it was brushed off as him just being rundown from the amount of biking he was doing. Then came the on and off illnesses with the body not recovering the way it should, followed by the “insane amount of back pain.” And with even the doctors not knowing what was wrong with him, Johansson’s budding and fast-rising career looked to be in jeopardy, with no guarantees that he would ever be able to compete again.
“It was heartbreaking, fully. I was damaged from that. Honestly, I couldn't say anything else. I knew my potential; I knew what I had inside me and what I wanted to do with my life. I just felt like I was watching my life pass without any input on in which direction it was going. I fucking hated it,” he said.
“And after trying time and time again to get on my bike and just suffering back pain, you start thinking like, ‘Can I really do this?’ There was a lot of question marks.”
It took eight months for doctors to figure out Johansson was battling an autoimmune disease in his thyroid. After being diagnosed and beginning treatment for the disease, it didn’t take Johansson long to get back on his bike.
But without practicing for nearly a year, as well as losing nearly 40 pounds due to his illness, the journey to get back to the top of the sport looked to be a long road. And maybe it would have been for a different rider, but miraculously, Johansson was able to pick up right where he left off finishing fourth at Red Bull Joyride in 2018, which he views as one of the pinnacles of his career and the starting of a new chapter that he hopes will continue being written for years to come.
Johansson followed that up with back-to-back seconds at the first two events of 2019, before finally getting back to the top of the podium at the Tom van Steenbergen Invitational at Big White.
From there, Johansson hasn’t looked back, winning every single slopestyle event he has competed in, leading to him being named the 2021 Slopestyle World Champion and the second-ever Crankworx Triple Crown Winner, all at just 22-years-old.
This year, with a Slopestyle win at Crankworx Innsbruck already under his belt and a return to Whistler on the horizon, Johansson’s only goal is to keep the good times rolling and continue following his passion for mountain biking, regardless of the results.
“My goal for this year is just to do what I want, kind of focus on the things I'm truly passionate about and follow my heart with that stuff,” he said. “To me, it's the joy of going out riding bikes with my friends, it's the process of learning a new trick and mastering a very difficult task. It's filming stuff, it's traveling, it's getting to know people, just having fun, really. As long as I enjoy it, there's no limit to it.”
Down the line, Johansson said he would like to branch out from Slopestyle and get into some more “big bike stuff.” But for now, his sole focus remains on Slopestyle, where he is eyeing a second straight Triple Crown—or with the addition of a fourth tour stop in Cairns, Australia, maybe even the first-ever quadruple crown.
And even though every other rider out there is looking to take that top spot from him and disrupt another Triple Crown performance, the biggest obstacle in his way, according to Johansson, is himself.
“Slopestyle is so individual. And even though I have really great opponents, the biggest opponent of them all is myself,” he said. “If I can't get two runs together, it doesn't matter how good or bad someone else performs, I won’t perform better. So that's kind of the way I look at it. Everyone gets a run down the hill, and from there, it’s up to the judges.”