Johnson, William D. ("Bill")

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JOHNSON, William D. ("Bill")

(b. 1961 in Los Angeles, California), U.S. skiing champion, who in 1984 became the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in the men's downhill event.

Johnson was the son of Wallace Johnson, a computer analyst, and D. B. Johnson, a former office manager. When he was quite young, the family moved to Brightwood, Oregon, where Johnson and his three older siblings all became involved in skiing. Johnson showed a genuine talent for the sport from the very start. His daredevil streak surfaced early when, at age four, he was barely prevented by his grandmother from jumping off a rooftop. His parents were short of money and made substantial sacrifices to ensure that Johnson and his siblings had opportunities to ski, shuttling the family to ski meets in a station wagon that was on its last legs and sometimes sleeping in parking lots.

A bright student, Johnson turned his back on academics to focus all of his energies on skiing. He quit junior college to concentrate on training for the World Cup downhill races. Determined to mount a credible challenge to the European skiers, who up until that time had dominated the sport, Johnson won both the 1983 and 1984 U.S. downhill championships in the run-up to the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.

At the Olympics, Johnson irritated just about everybody in the skiing establishment with his cocky barrage of predictions that he would handily defeat all comers to win gold in the men's downhill. Although his predictions of victory won him a high profile, few knowledgeable observers considered him a real factor in the downhill race. His brashness was in no way diminished by the chorus of experts who confidently predicted he didn't have a chance. Up until the day of the race, he told anybody who would listen, "Everyone else can fight for second [place]." Then the brash Californian confounded everybody—particularly his fellow competitors Peter Mueller of Switzerland and Franz Klammer of Austria—by racing to victory by just over a quarter of a second, a respectable margin.

Although the naysayers were quick to dismiss Johnson as "just a glider," suggesting that his waxing technician had engineered the skier's amazing feat with a perfect waxing combination, Johnson refused to rein in his cockiness. After his wins at the International Ski Federation's World Cup competitions in 1984, he turned on the critics and declared, "I won three World Cups and the Olympics—I must've made a few good turns." Sadly, Johnson's glory of that year was not to be repeated. Two years later, skiing the downhill course at Val Gardena in Italy, he badly tore his knee ligaments in a savage crash on the notorious "camel bumps" near the bottom. Johnson continued skiing for the rest of the decade, but a lack of adequate training and persistent injuries, including back problems, marred his career, forcing him to retire from competitive skiing in 1990.

In 1987 he had married Gina Ricci. After leaving skiing, he concentrated first on real estate—building, renovating, and selling homes. His next venture was an unsuccessful assault on professional golf, which quickly faded after he failed to make the professional circuit. He tried his hand at a number of other ventures, including financial day trading and working as an electrician, but he had a short attention span and quickly lost interest in these endeavors. His mother explained, "He was always restless. Always looking for something else."

In 1991 tragedy struck when Johnson's one-year-old son drowned in the family's hot tub in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Gina later gave birth to two more sons, but the marriage foundered over Johnson's inability to settle down and find steady work. Troubled by her husband's increasingly nomadic ways, Gina took their sons and moved to Sonoma, California, in 1999. The couple divorced in 2000.

For a few years Johnson operated a ski-racing camp at Crested Butte in Colorado, but when Salt Lake City, Utah, won the International Olympic Committee's nod to host the 2002 Winter Olympics, he decided it was time to dust off his skis and see if he still had the skills to make the U.S. downhill team. Johnson's ill-fated attempt to stage a skiing comeback was also a last-ditch effort to try to win back his ex-wife and sons, by returning to the only career at which he had been successful.

The head coach Bill Egan encouraged the long-idle Johnson to give it a try, saying, "It's a long shot, but go for it. If he can do it, more power to him." Less encouraging for Johnson was advice from his former coach Erik Steinberg. Although Steinberg acknowledged that Johnson's comeback effort could succeed, saying, "He's got the talent—anything's possible if he gets into bomb-proof shape," the coach warned that there was a good reason why few skiers attempted a comeback at age forty. "Mark Spitz tries a comeback, and what's the worst that can happen to him? In our sport, people can kill themselves."

Steinberg's warning proved hauntingly prophetic. On 22 March 2001 Johnson nearly killed himself in a horrific crash during a practice run at Big Mountain, near Whitefish, Montana. Catching an edge as he hurtled down the treacherous corkscrew course at more than fifty miles per hour, Johnson crashed face first into the icy slope. Tumbling through two safety nets, he nearly bit through his tongue. His ex-wife, at home in Sonoma, was told by authorities at Kalispell Regional Medical Center that Johnson had only a 25 percent chance of surviving. Johnson beat those grim odds; after coming out of a weeks-long coma, he faced a long and arduous course of rehabilitation to get back on his feet.

Johnson is lucky to have survived his injuries, which surely have ended his competitive skiing career. He will be remembered, however, as a gutsy, fearless competitor who managed to come through time and again when just about everyone else had counted him out.

The tragic ending to Johnson's comeback attempt is thoroughly explored in a number of articles, including E. M. Swift, "Last Run," Sports Illustrated (16 Apr. 2001); "Broken Dream: His Gold Medal Glory Behind Him, Bill Johnson Hoped a Return to Skiing Would Help Win Back His Family," People (14 May 2001); and Paula Parrish, "Downhill King," Rocky Mountain News (2 June 2001).

Don Amerman

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Johnson, William D. ("Bill")

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