Olympic champ Bill Johnson receives pick-me-up from ski team
Most days are a struggle for American downhill great Bill Johnson as he rests in bed at an assisted living facility in Gresham, Oregon, watching his favorite television shows.
He can't move his arms or legs anymore. He can't really speak, either, in between bouts of coughing and choking fits. And lately, Johnson's left leg has been going into painful spasms with no warning.
''He's deteriorating,'' D.B. Johnson said of her son's health, which has been on the decline since a stroke nearly five years ago. ''He's frozen in himself. It's so sad.''
But this brought a smile to the Olympic champion's face: On his 55th birthday Monday, U.S. Ski Team downhillers Steven Nyman and Marco Sullivan sent him a video tribute, with Nyman telling Johnson, ''You're the man.''
In his day, Johnson certainly was.
As a birthday present, the ski team posted on its Facebook page footage of his electric run from the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, when he became the first American to capture the downhill crown. The brash kid predicted he would win that day and then backed it up with an edge-of-your-seat performance.
In 2001, Johnson attempted a comeback at the U.S. championships at age 40, hoping to recapture those glory days and earn a spot on the squad for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. 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.
After making steady improvement, Johnson suffered a stroke in 2010. Ever since, he's gradually lost the use of his body.
The good days are when he gets to watch his favorite TV shows, usually sports related, with relatively no discomfort. Johnson enjoyed seeing the world Alpine championships in Beaver Creek, Colorado, in February, paying close attention to the entrancing action. He's a big fan of Bode Miller and anyone else who flies down the mountain with a daredevil's mentality. After all, that's the way Johnson used to race.
''We watch as much racing as we can,'' his mom said.
Two years ago, Johnson battled a life-threatening infection and decided he no longer wanted supplemental oxygen or to take his antibiotics. He eventually recovered.
Since then, his health has steadily declined. His mom retired so she could spend more time with him at the facility. She sits with him all day until he goes to bed, which is usually around 3 p.m. so that he can ward off those painful leg spasms.
''It's just difficult for him,'' she said. ''He wants to be in bed more often. It's hard for him. Very hard.''
There was a time when Johnson used to race through the halls of the facility in his motorized scooter, deftly operating the controls with his left hand.
Now, that hand barely has enough strength to push the mute button on the TV remote control. But he still tries because, ''Bill doesn't like the commercials,'' his mom said.
His birthday was a good day. A very, very good day.
Johnson had friends stop by and they cut into a chocolate ice cream cake. Then, his family read birthday cards to him - there were quite a few to read - and opened some presents.
Someone sent him a piece of meteorite on a chain. That pairs nicely with the gift he received a few months ago when a friend named a star in his honor, recording it with the star registry as ''Bill Johnson Gold Medalist.''
He also received a photo from Olympic slalom champion Mikaela Shiffrin. She held up a sign written in red marker that said ''Happy Birthday, Bill,'' as she stood next to Johnson's good friend, Harold Burbank.
Then, Johnson viewed the video from the ski team - Nyman and Sullivan sitting slope-side, a ski lift going overhead on a picturesque day. Nyman said to Johnson, ''You paved the way for the American downhillers. Just want to say thanks. Happy birthday.''
Sullivan added: ''Thanks, Bill. Happy birthday. Hang tough.''
It certainly meant a lot to Johnson.
''He smiled from beginning to the end,'' his mom said. ''It was wonderful to see him like that.''