A Maverick's Moment of Glory
updated 03/05/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 03/05/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST
Blond, blue-eyed, cool and cocky, Bill Johnson could easily pass for a rock 'n' roller from his home base of Van Nuys, Calif. Johnson's into heavy medal, all right, gold medal. With his stunning downhill victory at Sarajevo, the brash Valley Guy became the first American man ever to win a gold in Alpine skiing. Phil and Steve Mahre's gold and silver medals in the slalom three days later didn't overshadow Johnson's feat so much as complement it, capping an American assault on the Alpine events that resulted in five medals, including Debbie Armstrong's gold and Christin Cooper's silver in the women's giant slalom.
But it was undeniably Johnson, 23, who emerged as the latest American (anti) hero. He might well have been Sarajevo's biggest surprise had it not been for a race in Wengen, Switzerland a month earlier, when he became the first American ever to win a World Cup downhill. Of course, the oh-so-confident Johnson would have been surprised if he had not come away a winner in Sarajevo. "It's not a question of whether I win the gold," he told the BBC, "but what I do with it after I win it."
During a tense week of postponements, Johnson was loose and cool, playing video games at the Olympic Village's "cultural" center and reviewing his training runs on ABC. With two firsts and two seconds in five runs, he had everybody wondering if he was a fluke or a flake, or both. Then he answered all his critics in a blistering minute-forty-five-fifty-nine. "I'm the fastest, best glider in the world right now," he said. And who could argue?
Compared to the usual esprit de corn sentiments about Olympic team members pulling for each other, Johnson's frankness and bluntness were refreshingly gritty. He was particularly pleased with beating Franz Klammer, Austria's 1976 gold medalist, who called Johnson a "nose picker" in the press after the American's victory in Wengen. (Klammer finished 10th in Sarajevo.) "I liked sticking it to the Austrians," gloated Johnson. "We've had a dry spell—like all 13 previous Olympiads. But now the nose pickers are chasing me. They can kiss my ass."
After the press conference, Johnson, clutching a bouquet of flowers wrapped in cellophane, hopped into a cab with a reporter. "Go nuts, go nuts," Johnson urged, hungry for more questions. Back at the Olympic Village, Bill called his parents, who have been divorced since 1976. His mother, Dale (she goes by DB), who lives in Trout-dale, Oreg., describes their conversation: " 'Oh, Bill,' I said, 'I'm so thrilled and proud.' And he goes, 'Hi, Mom. What are you so proud of?' And I say, 'Well, Bill, honey, you brought home the gold.' And he says, real cool, 'I was just checking.'!"
Bill's father, Wallace Johnson, lives in Van Nuys. Bill sleeps on a beige couch in the cramped living room when he's home. His trophies are heaped on an end table. A computer-systems analyst, the senior Johnson had gotten the news from a reporter at 3:30 a.m., two and a half hours before speaking to his son. "Have you quit your job yet?" Bill asked. "No," replied Dad. "But I haven't been in to work yet."
And in Notre Dame, Ind., Heather Rapp learned of Johnson's victory from one of her dorm mates. A 19-year-old freshman at Saint Mary's College, Rapp met Bill last May at an Olympic fund-raiser in Oregon. Rapp thought he was "a really neat guy" and was captivated by his "curly eyelashes and those baby-blue eyes that are so clear you can see right through to China." Heather got some insight into Johnson's character the first night they were together. After a dance, she reports, "We all went back to the hotel to go swimming. Bill said 'Watch this,' and then he did a double flip or something. But the pool was only nine feet deep, and he really scraped his face, his chest and his legs. All the other girls rushed to help, but I thought it was kind of funny because he was trying to show off so much and it backfired."
Johnson and Rapp have been going out ever since, at least when Bill's in the country. He visited her at school last October and ate Christmas dinner with the Rapp family in Bend, Oreg. On Valentine's Day Heather got a "Wish you were here" telegram from Sarajevo. Johnson's parents are all for the romance. "Heather's the only girlfriend Bill's ever had," says Wallace. "I mean, he's had a lot of—quote—girlfriends, but he hasn't gone out with anyone that's lasted." "She'll last," says Bill. Pause. "I hope."
What is sure to last is the indelible impression Johnson has made on Alpine skiing in America. It all started in Boise, Idaho, where Wally and Dale Johnson moved when Bill was 7. Within two months Bill was enrolled in the Mighty Mites skiing program. "I bombed up the rope tow," says Johnson, "went bombin' up the chair lift and just kept going." Bill's brother Wally, 29, says that when he was 18 and his sibling was 12, "Bill was starting to get as good as I was." Even though he skipped two grades and graduated from Sandy Union High School in Sandy, Oreg. at 16, Johnson speaks of himself as a "budding delinquent." It was during this stage that he had his now notorious brush with the law, stealing a car with a friend. "We were in my Chevy, which had a 350 engine," Bill recalls, "and we spotted this '56 Chevy and decided its engine must be bigger. So we towed it off." Local police soon towed off Billy. "They slapped my hands, and I had to write my probation officer every week when I moved to Wenatchee, Wash."
Skiing was his salvation. Johnson spent two years at Wenatchee's Mission Ridge Ski Academy. "If it hadn't been for skiing," he said in Sarajevo, "I might have been looking at some big walls today." He was one of five downhill forerunners for the U.S. team at the Lake Placid Olympics. (Forerunners negotiate runs before the actual race to test for hazards, see that control flags are set up and officials ready, and clear the course of spectators.) U.S. Alpine head men's coach, Konrad Rickenbach, remembers Johnson as a bratty kid who "liked to razz, insult and intimidate other people. He was obnoxious, abrasive, obstinate and liked to do things his own way. He conducted himself in ways that alienated people." Not only that, continues Rickenbach, his concentration was erratic, and he liked to attract attention. "Fame and notoriety—that is Billy's ballpark," Rickenbach says. "The team learned how to handle him—kick the hammer down and ignore him. It hurts Billy to be ignored. He reacts like a child."
Johnson was booted off the team two years ago for being out of shape. The following season he wrote a letter asking for a second chance. "I'd like more kids like him on my team," Rickenbach now says. "He's matured a lot and showed terrific determination."
Part of his growth involved what Rickenbach calls "a more professional attitude—that if he wins, there are results. He sees a lot of dollar signs." There is nothing wrong with Johnson's eyesight. Through a ludicrous loophole in amateur regulations, endorsement money can be more or less laundered through payments made by equipment manufacturers to the U.S. ski team, then channeled indirectly to the athletes to preserve a charade of amateur ranking. Johnson has typical "letter of intent" and "letter of agreement" deals for skis, bindings, boots, goggles, helmet, poles and sportswear. Johnson is as brazen and eager in the endorsement race as he is in downhilling. "This is a golden opportunity," he says. "I plan to capitalize on this." Significantly, the snow had hardly melted off Johnson's skis when Columbia Pictures contacted his father to discuss a possibe TV or feature film on Bill's life. (Though Johnson's perceived arrogance could cost him endorsements, Mark McCormack, head of the International Management Group, compares him to tennis star John McEnroe, whose on-court brashness, he says, has actually "enhanced his image.")
Johnson's immediate plans are simple. "I really want to keep winning these races," he says. And after that? Over the summer, he figures, "I may wind surf, water-ski, stay in shape somehow and get my boat running. It's a 20-foot Sea Ray. Last summer I traveled 10,000 miles with my boat hitched to my car. Never did put it in the water." He breaks off to laugh at his joke. "Actually, I found 13 lakes and an ocean."
Surely, while on his heady gold rush, Johnson could embrace products beyond skiing. "Oh, yeah," he says, grinning at the possibilities. "I'd love a new Sea Ray. My boat sucks pond water right now. It don't run at all." He pauses, mulling. "Oh, yeah," he adds. "I think I'd like to get affiliated with the gold market, too."