Sports

From the archives: Ski champ Bill Johnson keeps ‘winning attitude’ despite troubles

1984 Olympic downhill champion Bill Johnson points to the area on his head where doctors performed surgery following his March 2001 skiing accident in Big Mountain, Mont. Johnson was making a comeback when he went down in an event. He was in a coma for several weeks before he was brought to Portland. Johnson got his start learning to ski at age 7 at Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area in Boise.
1984 Olympic downhill champion Bill Johnson points to the area on his head where doctors performed surgery following his March 2001 skiing accident in Big Mountain, Mont. Johnson was making a comeback when he went down in an event. He was in a coma for several weeks before he was brought to Portland. Johnson got his start learning to ski at age 7 at Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area in Boise.

He first donned skis in his back yard, navigating the 30-degree slopes at his Highland View Drive home in Boise. At age 7, he would hitchhike his way to Bogus Basin Ski Resort after school.

From such humble beginnings, Bill Johnson reached the pinnacle of his sport. In 1984, the cocky, rough-around-the-edges 23-year-old infuriated the skiing elite by predicting he would win gold in the Olympic downhill.

Then, he did just that — becoming the first U.S. male to win an Olympic Alpine skiing gold in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.

“I told everybody I was going to win and did,” Johnson said. “It was no big deal for me. I could win big time — back in the old days.”

In the old days, Bill Johnson could finish a crossword puzzle in no time. He could build houses. He was a scratch golfer with professional ambitions, a man with life very much ahead of him.

This week, a much different Johnson returns to Boise for a benefit reception tonight at the Ram and an appearance Wednesday in the Winter Games of Idaho at Bogus Basin.

His post-Olympic life never measured up to those lofty expectations. His brashness and blue-collar upbringing, endearing in his rags-to-riches story, turned off potential sponsors. With a failing marriage and money problems, Johnson turned to the one thing he’d never struggled with — skiing.

But Johnson, nearing his 41st birthday and attempting a comeback to make the 2002 Olympic team, suffered a brain injury in a near-fatal crash in Montana. It was March 2001, and he spent three weeks in a coma and more than six months in rehab.

Though his memory often fails him — the 1990s, which included the birth of his children and a divorce, are all but forgotten — Johnson has recovered enough to largely care for himself in a small home near Mount Hood in Oregon, another childhood ski area.

While other Olympians have parlayed their shining moments into riches and extended fame, Johnson, despite his historic feat, barely registers even among sports fans.

“He’s kind of the forgotten hero,” said DB Johnson, Bill’s mother, who lives in Gresham, Ore.

Dozens of trophies, many of which bring back no memories, line wooden shelves in his garage. Medals of all shapes and colors, dangling from familiar red, white and blue ribbons, hang neatly on a living room wall. Plaques, posters and pictures commemorating a past life adorn the small house.

The most precious honor of all, however, and the one that occasionally makes fans — and authors and movie producers — remember and seek the dwelling’s owner sits on the kitchen table, under a box of tissues, among the day’s newspaper and junk mail.

The blue box is tattered, its felt weathered and its plastic casing gone. But the Olympic gold medal inside remains as pristine as the day Johnson won it 23 years ago.

He clearly remembers winning the gold medal and often lugged it with him on his many travels.

“It used to be that it was under the seat of his pickup truck, and he never locked the cab of his pickup truck,” DB Johnson said.

Today, six years after the accident that nearly took his life, Johnson is not allowed to drive. He struggles to finish sentences without pausing because the next word simply escapes him. He gets frustrated when handling more than one task. He can’t remember the stories behind all those trophies.

“They took the blood out and they basically took out the memory as well,” said Johnson, who encourages strangers to feel the left side of his head where doctors operated to relieve pressure on his brain.

Standing inside the crowded office at his home, amid the posters, proclamations and plaques, Johnson flips through a book filled with business cards.

Johnson, whose skiing achievements brought him in contact with all manner of famous men and women, reads the names and the businesses, but nothing is familiar.

“I don’t know who I know,” he says, but rather than dwell on what he can no longer do, Johnson presses on. He breezes through sudokus. His golf game has recovered to the point where he carries a solid 16 handicap. He can still ski.

“He’s a strong-spirited man. That’s the reason he won the medal and overcame the obstacles he did,” said Harold Burbank of Hartford, Conn., a childhood skiing friend who returned to Johnson’s life after the accident to serve as his lawyer and coordinator of the Bill Johnson Foundation.

Johnson has plans for almost everything — the windows in his home, the antique pool table in his garage, the enormous fish tank that occupies much of the living room.

“He has goals. He’s still driven to do things and he still has that winning attitude,” said John Creel, another childhood friend who trained Johnson during his comeback attempt. “In that context, he’s still the same.”

Creel works blocks from Johnson’s home and the two visit about once a week. He is just one of many friends who have helped Johnson along the way. One purchases a yearly golf pass for him. Others stop by regularly to take him skiing and golfing.

Bob Cooper, who organized tonight’s benefit and Johnson’s appearance in the Winter Games of Idaho and drove his new friend from the Portland area to the Treasure Valley, tracked Johnson down in January. Cooper, a fan since Johnson’s victory in 1984, was so touched after meeting him in 2003 that he wanted to help.

Former rival Franz Klammer of Austria gave him a large donation to help with expenses.

“Despite his ‘Wild Bill’ image, he’s had this element of luck in his life, good fortune,” Burbank said. “When things needed to go right for him, they did.”

Never did it go more right than on that Montana mountain in 2001 — when doctors worked flawlessly to keep him alive.

“He survived clinical death. ... All the doctors said, ‘This is a miracle.’ It’s a miracle he survived,” Burbank said. “There was somebody sitting on his shoulder that day. I’m not overly religious, but I can be convinced.”

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