America's hero had just won America's World Cup downhill Sunday, and several thousand Americans were packed around the finish area at the foot of Aspen Mountain, howling and stamping over the glory of it all. At last they were seeing for themselves: The nation's newest star, William Dean Johnson, 23, was there before their very eyes, wearing the same rather too pretty peach-and-white-striped racing suit, the same sly smile that had become so familiar via TV when he won his Olympic gold at Sarajevo 17 days before.
"Oh, Billy!" They cried, "Oh, Billy!" The press crushed around him, and those who couldn't hear the interviews could only assume that the nightly news shows and the morning papers would be full of Johnson's bad-boy quotes, bragging about himself and doing in-your-face routines on his opponents. But when Johnson was asked if it felt good to beat all those doubting Europeans again, he said quietly, "I have nothing to prove anymore. If they don't think my record makes me one of the best in the world, then that's a conflict they have to straighten out in their own minds." Someone else asked him if he liked being a hero and Billy said modestly, "I'm not a hero in my own mind." Later, at the award ceremonies, they played The Star-Spangled Banner, and he stood at attention, misty-eyed and singing the words like a Boy Scout instead of the bad-apple whose youthful scrapes with the law led a London newspaper to run the headline: CAR THIEF STEALS GOLD IN SARAJEVO.
Johnson is taking his new fame with the utmost seriousness. Indeed, since his return to the U.S., he has done almost nothing except train for ski races, including the national downhill championship, which he won at Copper Mountain, Colo. on Feb. 23. He even turned down dinner at the White House because it interfered with his training. The one thing he did that might be considered wallowing in his new celebrity was to appear on The Tonight Show. "I wanted to go on the show to relate with the American public," Johnson said. "I had been sort of raked over by that ABC-TV show during the Olympics that mentioned the car-stealing thing and by the 'Thief Steals Gold' kind of newspaper story. I look forward to being a figure that people can look up to."
But if Johnson is reworking his image, the figure he cuts on the mountain is as brash and daring as ever. Unlike Sarajevo, the Aspen downhill was by no means designed to favor Johnson. Indeed, when training runs began on Tuesday, a Canadian coach said with a grin, "This course isn't for Billy D. You have to finish your turns on this one." But, except for a 30th place finish caused by a single mistake, his training runs placed him in the top six. And when the World Cup race had to be delayed a day because of fog and snow, fate seemed to favor Johnson: The other two international downhills he had won—at Wengen, Switzerland on Jan. 15 and in Sarajevo—were also rescheduled because of bad weather.
March 12, 1984
On race day the snow was still falling, and the Aspen surface wasn't hard. Johnson was running in the second seed—19th—and by the time he started, the soft snow had been gouged and rutted into a jarring washboard surface in some of the turns. Ahead of Johnson, two Austrians—Anton Steiner and Helmut Hoeflehner—were in first place in an incredible deadlock: 1:49.85 for each run.
Johnson was an unimpressive fifth after the relatively flat first section of the course, then moved up into third in the second part. Still, no one had much hope, for the twisty bottom third of the Aspen course is supposedly just too tortuous for the Olympic champion. But on this day he showed himself to be the compleat downhiller. He actually gained time on those tough turns, holding himself in an aerodynamic tuck even as he carved beautiful curves while clattering over harsh ruts, and finished in 1:49.60.
This victory couldn't be labeled a fluke. Though not one of the world's classic courses, Aspen is for men, not boys—men who can turn. Somehow Johnson has learned to do that. U.S. Alpine director Bill Marolt said, "He's got all this confidence now. It has caused him to make incredible leaps in his technical skills. I've never seen anything like it."
And more marvels lie ahead. About a dozen producers claim they're eager to make a TV movie of Johnson's life story. And the California state legislature is preparing a bill declaring a statewide Bill Johnson Day. But what about the "millions" Johnson saw as the value of an Olympic gold? To remain an amateur, his income from endorsements must be laundered through the U.S. Ski Team. Wally Johnson has represented his son in at least one bitter meeting with the ski team over Bill's new contract. "They take an unbelievable percentage on most deals," Wally said. "The kids barely get bubble gum money for most of their commercials and appearances."
Does the U.S. Ski Team have Bill over a barrel? "Not necessarily," Wally said. "We might be able to go back to Sweden. Bill's grandfather was born there. Five years ago, when the American team wouldn't let Bill go to Europe, I talked to the Swedish embassy about putting him on the Swedish team."
Asked about this, Bill gulped and said, "I don't think he was serious." One would hope not. With Phil and Steve Mahre about to call it quits this week, the country needs a new American mountain king. Johnson himself is quite serious about his role as a national hero. "I've always known I would make it this way," he said. "Now I need to keep it in perspective. If I'm going to be everything I say I'm going to be, I have to be real careful to do things the right way."
Somehow, he seems like a man who might be able to do exactly that.