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Downhill: The Bill Johnson Story




Zeke Piestrup



Whatever happened to Bill Johnson? The man was like a comet, blazing onto the scene and quickly disappearing from sight. At the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, Bill grabbed center stage. It wasn't just his bold prediction of victory, but it was Bill's story, full of redemption -- a theme beloved by Americans. He was the classic "troubled youth" given a second chance on the ski hill. Busted for stealing cars when he was 17-years-old, Bill was given a choice of jail or accepting a scholarship to the Mission Ridge ski academy. Johnson manifested the lone wolf portrayed in Robert Redford's Downhill Racer, a film that both foreshadowed Bill's rise, and inspired the racer as well. "I've seen it many times," he told the Austrian press at Sarajevo two days before the downhill, "and that's exactly the way it'll happen now. You can start writing your story. This course was designed for me, and everyone else is here to fight for second place." His fellow racers were none too pleased with Johnson's cocky mouth and brash attitude. Franz Klammer, the most famous and greatest downhiller of all time, derided Johnson, calling him a "nose picker." But the American bad boy made good on his prediction, becoming the first American man to win a gold medal for the United States in ski racing, ending a 20-year reign in the downhill by the Austrians and the Swiss. After his historic victory, it was no longer the authorities alone that took an interest in the rebel skier. Johnson became a full-on celebrity, adored by the European press. Two weeks after the Olympics, Johnson debunked the prevailing theory that he was simply a great "glider" by winning the very turny Aspen downhill. Johnson made it three-in-a-row with his victory at the final downhill of the year in Whistler. The "former car thief" proved himself unquestionably as the greatest downhiller in the world. But just as soon as Johnson became the media's favorite story, he gradually disappeared. He never did podium again after 1984, and injuries prevented him from regaining his physical form to make another Olympic run in 1988. After failing to qualify for the '88 U.S. downhill team, Johnson officially retired from ski racing. Johnson's post-racing career followed a course of self-destruction, full of failed investments and failed relationships. "He ran to an area that had nothing to do with his life," says ex-wife Gina Johnson. "We were in San Diego. Exactly what is your gold medal going to do there?" And soon enough, Bill would not have to offer an answer to that question. Gina divorced Bill and took their two sons to live in Sonoma. He'd lost it all: the money, the Olympic fame, and now his family. Having exhausted all options, flat broke and living in an RV, Bill hatches a final plan to win it all back. A comeback. At 40-years-old. In the most dangerous of sports: downhill ski racing. "He was trying to solve problems in his life by being successful on the ski hill, because it worked before," says friend and fellow downhiller Alan Lauba. Bill had always been a risk taker. Seemingly born fearless, Johnson's willingness to cut corners gave him a decided edge over most racers, and to Johnson, the narrative was clear. "There was a prize at the end," says his sister Kathryn, "To win back his wife and family." Johnson was not impressed by the top crop of U.S. downhillers in 2001, and to make another Olympic run, all he'd have to do was pick off that fifth guy on the downhill team; but he was battling time. It would have been much more fortuitous for Johnson if he had started his comeback a year earlier. It's a three-year-thing with ski racing: Johnson was therefore making up for lost time when he arrived in Whitefish for the 2001 U.S. downhill championships, and his risk-taking approach nearly cost him his life.