1984 gold medalist dies at 55.
Bill Johnson, a onetime car thief who found salvation as America’s rogue of the slopes, winning the Olympic downhill race in 1984 to become the first male skier from the United States to capture a gold medal in alpine skiing, died Thursday at an assisted-living facility in Gresham, Ore. He was 55.
His death was announced by the U.S. Ski Team. He had been in declining health since a near-fatal skiing accident in 2001. He had been partially paralyzed since suffering a major stroke in 2010.
Johnson’s brief, spectacular career was concentrated in a single year, 1984, when he boldly predicted that he would win the gold medal in the downhill at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.
Skiers from the traditional alpine powers in Europe and even some of his teammates considered the 23-year-old Johnson a brash upstart, as he reveled in his image as the bad boy of skiing. He was called Billy the Kid.
“Basically, any downhill skier is a daredevil, and I’m no exception,” he said before the Winter Games in the former Yugoslavia. “I like to drive cars faster than 100. I like to go over bumps in my car and get airborne. I like to drink. I chase girls full time, but I only drink part time.”
In January 1984, one month before the Olympics, Johnson backed up his bravado by winning a World Cup downhill race in Switzerland. By the time he got to Sarajevo, his confidence and ability were at their peak.
“I don’t even know why everyone else is here,” he said. “Everyone else can fight for second.”
He was fearless in a sport with one simple goal: be the fastest person down the mountain. The steep, relatively straight Olympic course was ideal for Johnson. Small for a downhill racer, at 5foot-9 and 170 pounds, he curled himself into a tight tuck position centered low over his skis. “I’m built like a bullet,” he said. In his winning run, Johnson maintained smooth form as he covered the course at an average speed of 63 mph. The cover of Sports Illustrated showed him flying through the air, with the headline “Flat Out for Glory.”
With a gold medal around his neck and “The Star-Spangled Banner” ringing in his ears, Johnson was on the top step of the Olympic podium, as skiers from Switzerland and Austria stood below him. He won two more World Cup downhill races in 1984 and talked about the “millions” that would come his way.
“Face it, Bill Johnson is a free spirit,” his Olympic coach, Bill Marolt, said at the time. “The one thing Johnson has that all great athletes have is an unbelievable spirit — the feeling that he can’t be defeated.”
But Johnson never won another race. Hampered by knee and back injuries, he retired in 1989. He occasionally competed in events for older skiers, but when he was away from the slopes he seemed lost.
He failed to find success as a stock trader, professional golfer, ski-camp operator, real estate broker and electrician. In 1991, his 13month-old son drowned in the family’s hot tub in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Several years later, he and his wife were divorced and she moved out with their twin sons.
Broke, out of work and 40 years old, Johnson embarked on a quixotic mission to recapture his old Olympic magic. Wearing outmoded skis and uniforms, he did poorly in races, discovering that the sport had changed as he grew older.
On March 22, 2001, while training near Whitefish, Mont., Johnson lost control at more than 50 mph, slammed face-first into the icy surface and hurtled through two protective barriers.
He was unconscious when rescuers reached him. An emergency tracheotomy was performed at the scene, and Johnson was taken by helicopter to a hospital, where he spent three weeks in a coma.
His former wife, Gina Ricci, came to his bedside.
“He told me he was going to go back to the mountain,” she told The New York Times, “and he was going to win me back.”
When a friend went to retrieve Johnson’s pickup truck — a 1984 Ford F-250 — he found a black bag nestled under the seat. It held his Olympic gold medal.
William Dean Johnson was born March 30, 1960, in Los Angeles. His father worked in computers.
The family moved to Idaho when Johnson was 7, then two years later settled in Brightwood, Ore., near Mount Hood. He was a good student and promising skier, but he also was restless and quarrelsome.
Arrested at age 17 for car theft, Johnson was told by a judge that he could go to jail or attend a ski academy in Washington state. He chose skiing, but he never outgrew his reputation as a brawler who fought with his teammates and argued with his coaches.
Johnson’s story was featured in a 2011 documentary film titled “Downhill.”
American downhill skier Bill Johnson, training in February 1984 for the Olympic race that he would win in Sarajevo, was called Billy the Kid by rivals and fans. He was 55 when he died Thursday at an assisted-living facility in Gresham, Ore. Michel Lipchitz, Associated Press file
Johnson was all smiles Feb. 16, 1984, after winning Olympic gold. Associated Press file