DOWN­HILL LEG­END

1984 gold medal­ist dies at 55.

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Matt Schudel

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

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