When Johnny Strange was 4 years old, he told his father he could fly.
Little Johnny jumped off the back of a couch and smashed his head, Brian Strange recalled recently, requiring a trip to the hospital.
But Johnny couldn’t sit still even at the hospital, racing around until he collided with a gurney and banged his head again.
That thirst for movement, activity and adventure continued for Johnny’s entire life, right up until he died on Oct. 1, 2015, at age 23 in a wing-suit flying accident in the Swiss Alps. He skated, jumped out of helicopters, climbed mountains — you name it, he probably did it.
In 2009, Johnny gained fame at age 17 for becoming the youngest person to climb the highest peak on each continent, known together as the “Seven Summits.” As social media proliferated, Johnny gained an online following while trying to leverage his thrill-seeking pursuits to promote social causes close to his heart. When he successfully climbed Mount Everest in 2009, Johnny used the attention he received to promote an activism group called the Genocide Intervention Network and funding for the fight against Parkinson’s disease.
Now, on the one-year anniversary of his son Johnny’s death, Brian Strange plans to honor the extreme athlete’s memory by helping fund two skateparks in his name, one in their hometown of Malibu, California, and one in Bhutan.
“I’d struggled for a long time with what to do to honor Johnny’s legacy in a way that also honored youth and the outdoors,” Brian Strange, who works as an attorney, said in a phone interview.
“Helping people and helping the underdog was always his passion,” Brian said. “He wanted to do adventure sports with a purpose. It wasn’t always about him, it was about trying to bring attention to causes he was passionate about.”
A couple years after climbing Everest, Johnny and Brian traveled to Bhutan to investigate summiting Gangkhar Puensumq, the world’s highest unclimbed mountain. They didn’t end up climbing the mountain, but did strike up a relationship with the Himalayan nation’s royal family, according to Brian. They were invited back for the king’s wedding, and Johnny spent six months living in Bhutan working with the government to help get young people interested in outdoor sports.
That’s why, Brian said, it felt like a “natural fit” to a establish skateparks in Johnny’s memory in both Malibu and Bhutan.
Johnny enjoyed skating down mountain roads in Bhutan, sometimes slapping hands with red-robed kids as he whizzed by.
“The kids were fascinated,” Brian said, “They’d never seen a skateboard before.”
Johnny’s Instagram still contains windows into a thrill-seeking life — as well as comments from friends and fans shocked by his death.
After a friend named Dean Potter died in a wing-suit flying accident in Yosemite National Park in May 2015, Johnny posted a tribute Instagram that is haunting in retrospect.
“Thanks for your wingsuit advice,” Johnny wrote in the accompanying caption. “I’m sorry to hear you died flying. See you on the other side ;)”
Less than six months later, Johnny died in a wing-suit accident of his own in the Swiss Alps. This time it was the model Gigi Hadid, an old friend of Johnny’s, posting her own remembrance on social media.
Now, with the one-year anniversary of Johnny’s death approaching this Saturday, Brian has committed to making a $1 million matching donation to the city of Malibu to build a skatepark in his son’s memory there, pending final approval by city authorities. In Bhutan, Brian said, the royal family has already donated land to build another skatepark in Johnny’s memory, and he’ll put up $300,000.
“I’m hoping kids see Johnny Strange’s name and they see he had this passion for accomplishing things and getting outdoors and having a purpose,” Brian said. “I’m hoping that will motivate others to pursue those same things.”