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- May 14, 2001
- Vol. 55
- No. 19
His Gold Medal Glory Behind Him, Bill Johnson Hoped a Return to Skiing Would Help Win Back His Family. Instead a Headlong Crash Left Him Fighting to Survive
Bill Johnson finally pushed the envelope too far on March 22, when he crashed face-first into packed snow while skiing 50 mph during a practice run at the U.S. Alpine Championships in Kalispell, Mont. A brash unknown in 1984 when he shocked his sport by becoming the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in the downhill, Johnson had been out of competitive skiing for years, his life turned into a series of false starts, bad breaks and strained relationships. (He hadn't spoken to his mother in months because of a dispute over money.) Then in August he decided to make a comeback, returning to the one thing he did right to try and win back the wife and two young sons he had lost after a painful divorce last year. "He wanted to get back to the way his life was," says his ex-wife, Gina Johnson, 36, an orthodontist's assistant. "He thought if he could be on top of the world, he could win us back—and win his life back."
Johnson's quest to make the 2002 U.S. Olympic Ski Team—and turn back the clock with Gina and sons Nicholas, 8, and Tyler, 7—may have seemed quixotic, but on the slopes "he was clearly making progress," says U.S. Ski Team spokesman Tom Kelly. "I don't think you'd find anyone who would say he had no business being out there." Even so, the morbid prophecy of Johnson's motto—"Ski to Die," which he had tattooed on his right arm not long before starting his comeback—nearly came to pass at Kalispell's Big Mountain Resort, when he lost his balance on a treacherous run called the Corkscrew, crashing through two layers of protective fence.
Johnson, his head drenched in blood, was given only a slim chance to survive. Yet he recently emerged from his coma and now has limited ability to recognize people and move his limbs. The long-range prognosis for his recovery from the devastating neurological damage he suffered, however, is uncertain. He faces months of difficult rehabilitation, but in his favor is the stubborn, rebellious streak that caused so much turmoil in his life. "He's a rule-breaker," says Dr. Keith Lara, one of the surgeons who operated on Johnson right after the accident. "Statistics mean nothing to this guy. He's got the will of 10 people. He's one cocky son of a gun."
Ordinary limits have rarely applied to Johnson, who at age 4 was stopped by his grandmother as he was about to jump off her roof. Raised in Los Angeles and then in Brightwood, Ore., by Wallace Johnson, a computer analyst, and his wife, DB, then an office manager, Johnson showed an early talent for skiing. (His parents, short of money, shuttled him and his three older siblings to meets in their rundown station wagon and slept in parking lots.) A gifted student, Johnson dropped out of junior college to focus on World Cup downhill racing, set on challenging the Europeans who dominated the sport. Heading into the '84 Olympics, he was lightly regarded but confident enough to proclaim, "Everyone else can fight for second [place]."
Sure enough, in Sarajevo Johnson blitzed to victory by.27 of a second—a large margin in downhill racing—and seemed poised for stardom. But injuries and poor conditioning cut short his career, and he never won another World Cup race. In 1987 he married Gina Johnson and two years later retired from elite racing, embarking on a decade-long journey to find a place for himself outside skiing. For a while he worked in construction, renovating and selling homes. He also dreamed of becoming a professional golfer and bought a motor home so his family could travel to tournaments with him. When he failed to make the pro circuit, he dabbled in day trading and worked as an electrician for $60 an hour. But nothing held his interest for long. "He was always restless," says his mother. "Always looking for something else."
Along the way there was tragedy. In 1991 Johnson's 1-year-old son, Ryan, drowned in the family's hot tub in Lake Tahoe, Nev., after a guest failed to shut a sliding door from the house. When he became a father again, Johnson doted on his little boys, taking them surfing and to soccer games. But his nomadic ways and impatience with steady work eventually undermined his marriage. After an early endorsement deal with a ski resort ended, Johnson competed only sporadically in senior ski races and refused to coach or do TV commentary. "Working 9 to 5 just wasn't for him," says Gina. "Living out of a suitcase and traveling from place to place was just something he really enjoyed." Fed up with the lack of stability, Gina took the boys and moved to her uncle's Sonoma, Calif., farm in 1999. "After a while, I said, 'Hey, wait, my kids need some consistency,' " Gina explains. "As much as Bill wanted to have a family and have a home, I think he just found it boring."
Soon after the end of his marriage, the quick-tempered Johnson—scarred by the divorce of his parents when he was 14—got into a barroom brawl and spent a night in jail. When the divorce became final last August, Johnson cooked up his comeback scheme. "I told him it was selfish of him," says Gina. "I told him, 'It's not your time to win a medal, it's time to be with your children. Your boys need you.' " Undeterred, Johnson teamed up with an old ski buddy, John Creel, who helped him train in Mount Hood, Ore. "I told him, 'We don't need to do this, you've already won,' " says Creel, 44, a fire lieutenant. "But he wanted to show everybody that he still had it." Johnson ran and swam to get in the best shape of his life, then shrugged off the risks of racing at 40. "In mythology it's called the hero's walk," says Creel. "Give it your all and let the chips fall where they may."
Sadly, they did not fall as Johnson had planned. Within minutes of the crash, doctors at Big Mountain Resort placed a tracheal tube in Johnson's throat to allow him to breathe, and a helicopter whisked him 25 miles to Kalispell Regional Medical Center. Johnson had nearly bitten off his tongue, suffered a dangerously swelling bruise on his brain and came close to dying from blood clots in his brain and lungs. Johnson's family—DB, his sister Kathryn, 44, a Portland legal assistant, and his brother Wally, 46, chief financial officer of an advertising company in Seattle—rushed to his side. (Johnson's father died of lung cancer in 1995; his other sister, Vicki, 42, lives in Australia.) "I thought he was invincible," says Kathryn of her brother. "But Billy is at his best when he's down."
In fact, Johnson's condition has improved considerably. He was transferred last month to Providence Medical Center, 20 miles from the home his mother shares with her second husband, Jimmy Cooper, 46, a machinist. Most days he can nod or shake his head to yes-or-no questions, and he has taken a few shuffling steps with the help of parallel bars and nurses to support him. "When we got up there a couple of weeks ago he was sitting in a chair and his eyes were open," says Gina, who has visited Johnson with her sons on two separate trips. "Now when the boys phone for him, he actually says, 'Hi.' " Dr. Rob Hollis, his neurosurgeon at Kalispell, predicts that Johnson "will be able to interact with loved ones and feel emotion. But I'm not sure he'll be the same person he was before."
Nor can doctors say if Johnson will ever walk again, much less ski. No one, though, is betting against him. "Knowing Bill," says Creel, "it wouldn't surprise me if we're making turns by next winter." For now, Johnson's progress is measured not in milliseconds but in the small, hopeful moments when his indomitable spirit shines through. Last month, for instance, Johnson got on the telephone with his ex-wife. As someone blocked the hole in his throat to keep in the air, Johnson croaked three garbled but audible words into the phone. His message: "I love you." Gina replied that she loved him too.
Alexandra Hardy in Portland and Karen Grigsby Bates in Los Angeles
- Alexandra Hardy,
- Karen Grigsby Bates.
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