Former U.S. Olympic skier’s spirit shines through
The daredevil downhill skier in him still craves going fast even if his body no longer permits it.
Once helped into his motorized scooter, former Olympic champion Bill Johnson races through the halls of an assisted living facility in Gresham, Ore., hardly ever backing off the accelerator.
Well, until he’s ordered to SLOW DOWN by the nursing staff.
A series of strokes have all but immobilized the skier who once lived life on the edge, whose brash confidence, movie-star charisma and rebellious attitude made him a fan favorite at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, where he became the first American to capture the downhill crown.
In 2001, Johnson attempted to regain his glory and made a comeback at the U.S. championships at age 40, with grand visions of earning a spot on the squad for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
Only Johnson wiped out during a practice run, suffering a traumatic brain injury that erased nearly a decade of memories. He also had to learn how to walk, talk and eat again.
He had made steady improvement over the years, even returning to the slopes for recreation. But Johnson’s health has been slowly on the decline because of mini strokes. Then, nearly two years ago, he had a major stroke that stole the rest of his body.
Now, his speech is slurred, he can’t sit up on his own, his left eyelid doesn’t open and only his left hand is operational. That’s his steering hand for his powered chair, enabling him to make those mad dashes down to the cafeteria for coffee.
He definitely misses the thrill of speed – any kind of speed.
There are no reminders of his past hanging on the walls in his room, nor any trophies on the shelf. He prefers it that way. Most of those trinkets are neatly boxed up at his mom’s house – waiting to be passed along to his children – along with his gold medal, which is tucked away in a safe.
Johnson still eagerly watches downhill races on television, perking up when Bode Miller flies out of the starting gate. Johnson will follow along, his eyes visualizing the moves as Miller carves his way through the course. Johnson used to ski a lot like Miller – with a gambler’s mentality and a resolve to take risks that few others would.
Indeed, his mind still races, even if his body can’t.
These days, Johnson, who turns 52 at the end of March, spends most of his time confined to his wheelchair or his bed, playing video games or watching game shows. His mom, D.B., frequently drops by to check on him. She used to care for her son at the family home, but his current health has made that impractical.
Johnson has stopped going to physical therapy, because he doesn’t see any reason for it.
“He knows he’s not improving,” his mom said. “He doesn’t like to be fussed over.”
Communicating for Johnson has become a labored task. So much so that his mom frequently serves as his interpreter, especially when he can’t vocalize his needs – like wanting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from the kitchen – to the staff.
That’s been frustrating. The personable Johnson has always enjoyed chatting, especially about skiing.
Does watching ski racing take him back to his glory days?
“Yes,” he whispered in the background as his mother held the phone.
Enjoy watching Lindsey Vonn and Miller race?
“Yes,” he softly said.
Were you the pioneer that opened up downhill skiing for the Americans?
A pause. Then a chuckle.
“Yep,” he answered.
That Olympic downhill run in Sarajevo nearly 28 years ago was electric as he effortlessly glided through the course, holding off the Austrians whom he had infuriated with his bravado leading up to the race.
“What he did that day was amazing at the time,” said Bill Marolt, president and CEO of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. “In retrospect, it’s still amazing.”
Same with his story.
Always a gifted skier, Johnson had a wild streak that had him careening down the wrong path.
Caught stealing cars as a teenager, the judge gave him a choice: Attend ski school or head to jail.
So he went to Mission Ridge Ski Academy in Washington, where he discovered that, when dedicated, he had potential. Lots of it, even, as he earned a Europa Cup crown.
Johnson made his first World Cup start in February 1983, taking sixth at a downhill in St. Anton, Austria. A year later in Wengen, Switzerland, he captured his first big-league race.
Despite his short time on the circuit, Johnson was one of the favorites heading into the Olympics – and he let everyone know it. He had a knack for getting under the skin of European skiers, maybe even a few coaches along the way, too.
Winning that day in Sarajevo was the pinnacle of his career. Johnson won twice more that season, but wouldn’t step on the World Cup podium again.
And three years after his debut on the scene, he made his last World Cup appearance, finishing seventh in the downhill at Whistler.
Still, he became an iconic figure to many Americans.
“They related to Billy – that brash, throw-it-in-your-face type attitude,” said Phil Mahre, who won the Olympic slalom in ’84. “When you tell people you’re going to go do something and then you go out and back it up like in Sarajevo, it’s pretty impressive.”
Johnson went through knee and back injuries that curtailed his career and prevented him from defending his title at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.
“It would’ve been great if he would’ve kept the charge going,” Mahre said. “I think it all came too quickly, it all came too easily. Then it left just as quickly and just as easily.”
Soon after, Johnson’s life began to unravel. He lost his first son, Ryan, at 13 months old in a hot tub accident and went through a divorce a few years later. He drifted, not really sure what to do next.
Then, inspiration hit. A way to get his life back on track the only way he knew how – make the Olympic team.
“He loved the downhill,” his mom said. “That was his life. That’s the reason he went back. He was going to try to do it again. He could’ve done it.”
At the U.S. championships near Whitefish, Mont., Johnson was speeding down the course at close to 60 mph when he entered a twisting section. He lost his balance, did the splits and slammed face first into the snow, biting off a chunk of his tongue as he flew through two sets of safety netting.
“The doctors didn’t think he was going to make it,” attorney and good friend Harold Burbank said.
He did, bucking long odds. But he suffered permanent brain damage.
For three years after the accident, Johnson stayed with his mom as he recovered. Then, he moved into a trailer home to regain some of his independence.
He even returned to the slopes – for fun.
In January 2008, he slowly started losing the use of his right side. He was having mini strokes, the doctors eventually concluded.
Then, he had an even more debilitating stroke, all but immobilizing him.
“Some days are really good days,” his mom said. “Some days are not so good.”
The good days are when his sons, Nick, 19, and Tyler, 17, visit.
“That lights him up,” his mom said.
So does conversing about skiing, his mom close by to relay his words.
You had a unique way of attacking a course, huh?
“Yes,” he said.
What do you want people to remember about Bill Johnson?
“Best American skier,” he said.
Anything people can do for you?
A pause. Then a chuckle.
“Send candy,” he said.
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