‘Ski to die’

Bill John­son, brash Olympic down­hill cham­pion, dies at 55

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OBITUARIES - BY PAT GRA­HAM AND ERIC WILLEM­SEN

Bill John­son craved speed - the faster, the bet­ter. He stole cars as a kid, got in trou­ble for it and was or­dered by a judge to make a choice: Ski school or jail.

John­son picked the slopes and wound up tak­ing the sport by storm.

The brash skier had movi­es­tar looks and a per­son­al­ity to match. He won over le­gions of fans by back­ing up his brag­gado­cio and be­com­ing the first Amer­i­can to cap­ture the Olympic down­hill ti­tle. John­son died af­ter a long ill­ness, the U.S. ski team said Fri­day from Kitzbue­hel, Aus­tria. He was 55.

He died Thurs­day at an as­sisted liv­ing fa­cil­ity in Gre­sham, Ore­gon, where he has been stay­ing since a ma­jor stroke a few years ago steadily took away the use of most of his body.

The dare­devil skier lived life on the edge, with a swag­ger and a re­bel­lious at­ti­tude that in­stantly made him a favourite among fans. So sure of him­self on the slopes, John­son won Olympic gold at the 1984 Sara­jevo Games af­ter telling ev­ery­one he was go­ing to do so.

He ap­peared on the cover of Sports Il­lus­trated af­ter that vic­tory, a shot of him fly­ing through the air in a per­fect tuck po­si­tion, his gaze in­tently fo­cused down the race course, and the cap­tion read­ing, “Flat out for Glory.”

That’s the way John­son at­tacked a moun­tain - the Bode Miller of ski­ing long be­fore Miller. John­son had a tat­too on his arm that read, “Ski to die.”

“Bill John­son was cut from a dif­fer­ent cloth,” Amer­i­can ski great Phil Mahre said in a state­ment. “Billy was a fighter and went about things his way. That tough­ness al­lowed him to reach heights in the ski­ing world that few will ever ac­com­plish.”

Four-time over­all World Cup cham­pion Lindsey Vonn echoed that thought.

“He was an in­cred­i­ble leg­end in our sport so I just hope he rests in peace and my con­do­lences to his fam­ily,” Vonn said.

In 2001, John­son at­tempted to re­cap­ture his glory days and made a come­back at the U.S. cham­pi­onships at age 40, hop­ing to earn a spot on the squad for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. But John­son wiped out dur­ing a prac­tice run, suf­fer­ing a trau­matic brain in­jury that erased nearly a decade of mem­o­ries. He also had to re­learn how to walk, talk and eat again.

Over the years, he grad­u­ally im­proved and even re­turned to the slopes on a recre­ational ba­sis. Then, in June 2010, John­son had a stroke. Lit­tle by lit­tle his body weak­ened, leav­ing him with only the use of his left hand. That was his steer­ing hand, the one he used to race his motorized chair down the hall­ways at the care fa­cil­ity, so fast that nurses had to tell him to slow down.

John­son on the slopes was some­thing to be­hold, paving the way for rac­ers like Tommy Moe, A.J. Kitt, Daron Rahlves and, of course, Miller.

“He loved the down­hill,” John­son’s mother, D.B. John­son-Cooper, once said in an in­ter­view. “That was his life. That’s the rea­son he went back (in 2001). He was go­ing to try to do it again. He could’ve done it.”

As a teenager, John­son had a wild streak that had him ca­reen­ing down the wrong path. Caught steal­ing cars, the judge gave him a choice: Take up ski­ing or off to jail.

John­son at­tended Mis­sion Ridge Ski Academy in Wash­ing­ton, where he dis­cov­ered he had plenty of po­ten­tial, win­ning a Europa Cup crown.

He made his first World Cup start in Fe­bru­ary 1983, tak­ing sixth at a down­hill in St. An­ton, Aus­tria. A year later in Wen­gen, Switzer­land, he cap­tured his first big-league race.

De­spite his short time on the cir­cuit, John­son was one of the favourites head­ing into the 1984 Olympics - and he let ev­ery­one know it. That was sim­ply his style and it got un­der the skin of Euro­pean skiers.

On his down­hill run that day in Sara­jevo, John­son was vir­tu­ally flaw­less as he held off the Aus­tri­ans and Swiss.

The win in Sara­jevo was the sum­mit of his suc­cess. He won twice more that sea­son, but wouldn’t step on the World Cup podium again.

When he fin­ished his ca­reer, John­son’s life be­gan to un­ravel. He lost his first son, Ryan, at around 13 months in a hot tub ac­ci­dent and went through a di­vorce a few years later.

AP PHOTO

In this Feb. 16, 1984 file photo, Amer­i­can skier Bill John­son smiles af­ter he won the gold medal in men’s down­hill com­pe­ti­tion at the Win­ter Olympics games on Mt. Bje­lansnica near Sara­jevo, Bos­nia-Her­zo­gov­ina.

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