The best downhill racer in American history reclined in his hot tub on his sun deck, his third or fourth bottle of Molson Golden in his hand, as the sweet autumn sun of Southern California warmed his smiling face. He was, as usual, situated high on a hill, this one a Malibu hill that fell in steep grassy rolls to the Pacific Ocean far below. William Dean Johnson, 24, tilted the bottle, swigged, swallowed and said, "What good is winning and getting to the top if you can't enjoy it? It's not how much money you have, it's what you do with it. I always wanted to live in Malibu, and when this place came up for sale, I jumped at it. I'm thinking of buying the three houses next to it, too. Am I a millionaire? Maybe not, but I'll be a millionaire soon. That's inevitable."
Ski racing seemed very far away indeed from Johnson's dream house, and he was asked if he ever worried about how well he would do in the coming season. "I don't have to live up to anything," he said. "I have already accomplished everything I wanted in ski racing. The rest for me is fun. I plan to bug the Austrians, drive them crazy for a while. If I lose every race from now on, well, I'll just take some acting lessons and go into the movies. For me, skiing is a means to an end."
That was in mid-November. Last week that selfsame downhill hero was at the top of another kind of slope, for the start of the classic Lauberhorn downhill in Wengen, Switzerland. Grim and tense, he was standing at the very same place where, roughly one year ago, he had flung himself into ski racing history. On Jan. 15,1984, Johnson had won the Lauberhorn, pulled it out on a soft, windy, truncated course, narrowly escaping a spectacular fall to finish on top—the first World Cup downhill victory ever achieved by an American man. Europeans scoffed and ridiculed that victory, but Johnson could do no wrong. He went on to win the Olympic gold medal at Sarajevo and two more 1984 World Cup downhills, on Colorado's Aspen and Canada's Whistler mountains. He became the most talked-about American ski racer ever; certainly he was the most talkative. Now he had returned to the scene of his initial crime: his theft of the Lauberhorn from angry Austrians and bitter Swiss, who had long considered the downhill their private possession.
Johnson flew to Europe on Nov. 18, shortly after his remarks from his hot tub, and found there was no snow to train on and, ultimately, no snow to race on, either. The entire December World Cup downhill schedule was in doubt. Glum and frustrated, downhillers had to wait until Dec. 15 before enough snow accumulated to let them race. On a tough, icy course in Val Gardena, Italy, Johnson finished a pathetic 23rd. He looked tired, weak, unable to hold a tuck. There was not another race until Jan. 11. That was the Hahnenkamm at Kitzb√ºhel, Austria, a splendidly treacherous course, diamond-hard and fiercely fast—decidedly not Johnson's kind of conditions. Two races were held back-to-back in Kitzb√ºhel to make up for those lost in December. In the first, Johnson finished 31st. He looked terrible, and later he said with typical candor, "My knees were shaking in the start." In the finish area one of his Austrian nemeses, Harti Weirather, the downhill world champion in 1982, turned to an American official as Johnson crossed the finish line and said, "He is a joke."
January 28, 1985
The second race at Kitzb√ºhel was a different story. Suddenly strong and confident, Johnson was running seventh by the interval clock when he flashed into a sudden compression near the bottom of the course, rocked back on his skis, caught an edge, almost recovered, then missed a gate and was disqualified. Nevertheless, he was exultant. "I got it all back," he said. "My technique was working; my turns were right." Even the Austrian coach, Karl (Downhill Charlie) Kahr, said Johnson had run a fine race.
Then came Wengen. Again, two races were scheduled back-to-back. In the first, Johnson finished 10th, a nice, pleasant result, although he said his skis, never used before, were stiff and "tough to pull around the turns." The race was won by an Austrian, Helmut H√∂flehner, 25, with the superb Swiss, Franz Heinzer, second. It was H√∂flehner's second victory of the season. The Austrian and Swiss teams are staging a mass assault on the downhills this year: Of the top 10 in that first Wengen race, four were Swiss and four were Austrian. The second race at Wengen was roughly the same, with Johnson finishing seventh behind the winner, Austria's Peter Wirnsberger, and a cluster of Swiss.
So what has happened to America's downhill hero of 1984? Five races this season and not one victory to show for it. Has this phenomenon, who entered the limelight and lore of American sport with such swagger and panache, already lost his touch? Certainly not. As Downhill Charlie himself said, "Don't underestimate Bill Johnson. He gets stronger from race to race. For now, he shows the same symptoms other Olympic and world champions showed the year after they won. Except for Franz Klammer in 1976, all were worn down and less strong in the season following victory."
Theo Nadig, the even-tempered Swiss who coaches the U.S. downhill team, agreed. "Bill owed it to himself to get all the money he could after he won the gold medal," Nadig said. "He traveled all summer. Airplanes, hotels, moving constantly. That chews up your body. He was not in good shape, but he had no choice. The opportunity was there; he had to grab it. Frankly, I don't expect him to win any races this year. A few top-10 finishes is the best he should expect."
It is true that Johnson chewed himself up during the frenzied months of money grabbing that followed his golden winter of '84. "I was grinding out signatures on contracts like a machine," he says. "I negotiated all my own contracts. I don't have an agent because I don't want to give away 15 percent of what I get. I booked myself after the Olympics, and I got some of the best ski equipment contracts in the world."
He has been in a constant state of war with the U.S. Ski Team management, which would like to act as his agent, negotiator and all-around business manager. "I told them to take a hike," says Johnson. "They only sell the team, not the individual. They ruin racers by taking their money. The latest is, they're trying to get a piece of money from my movie." (That film, a made-for-television job about his rocket ride from car thief to gold medalist, has not yet gone into production, although it has been scripted and currently carries the faintly nauseating title Guts and Glory.)
So hostile is Johnson toward the ski team that last week in Wengen he threatened to change his nationality. "If they keep pressing me, I have enough Swedish blood in me to fit in very well in Sweden," he said. "And Liechtenstein doesn't have any downhillers at the moment. They might want me. Or maybe Luxembourg...."
Certainly an idle threat. His role as America's cowboy-downhiller is the key to his fortune and his future. In Sarajevo, he predicted his gold medal would be worth "millions, we're talking millions." Eventually it might, though not yet. His annual income base now is roughly $220,000, although he could make another $100,000 or so with victory bonuses—if he were winning. He bought the Malibu house for $250,000, purchased a 15-unit apartment house in Portland, Ore., for his mother to manage, and he has "quite a bit of stock." Until two weeks ago, the only car he owned was a battered 1974 Chevrolet Malibu that he bought long ago for $50, but in Europe, where racers spend as much time driving to races as racing, he couldn't resist the temptation: He bought an Audi and a Porsche.
Rich or poor, he is still basically the same wise-guy motor mouth his European competitors love to dislike. As Kahr said, "He has one big fault: He talks too much. That's why he is not well-liked. He doesn't know how a man should behave after he becomes famous."
However, Johnson no longer boasts that he will guarantee a victory every time he climbs a hill. "People shouldn't expect me to win all the time," he says. "They don't realize how tough the competition has gotten. So many guys are so much better now." And what, pray tell, has happened to the brash big-talker of Sarajevo fame? "I didn't consider that brash," he says. "That was just pure confidence. I knew that course was made for me. I don't talk like that unless I know I can win." All right then, are there other World Cup downhills that Bill Johnson knows he can win? He thought, then said, "Aspen, because there is also lots of space for gliding and big round turns." Any others? "No, not really."
There lies the truth of Johnson's ski racing career: He is essentially a soft-snow skier, a glider who lets his skis run like the wind on the flat sections of any course. Of all World Cup skiers, he is by far the best on that kind of terrain. However, most World Cup downhill courses are steep, icy, fast and full of tight, technical turns that are not Johnson's forte. Thus, even though his turning technique has been improving, he almost always finds himself on terrain that puts him at a disadvantage to the great majority of his competitors. He is a great downhill racer but not the best in the world.
Amazingly enough, it is even possible that his days as America's best may be numbered. After years of numbing mediocrity among male down-hillers, there is suddenly a second U.S. skier with the potential to become a star. He is Doug Lewis, just turned 21, a wiry, bright-eyed little fellow who is about as different from Johnson as a young man can be. For one thing, Lewis is a fiercely aggressive racer who loves ice, steeps, tight turns. He comes from cold, quaint Salisbury, Vt., which is about as un-Southern California a town as there is in America. Whereas Johnson is from a broken home and was a practicing delinquent in his teens, Lewis is the son of a schoolteacher and a businessman, both Middlebury College graduates who started him on cello lessons when he was five. Now a musician of serious intent, Lewis cannot transport a cello on the World Cup circuit, but he often plays nice, clean renditions of Mozart or Chopin on hotel-lobby pianos. He and Johnson lose no love on each other. "Our values are very different," says Lewis crisply.
Young as he is, Lewis already boasts three World Cup finishes in the top 10—an eighth at Whistler last year, a ninth at Val Gardena and a tie for 10th at Kitzb√ºhel. No American has done so well so early in his career, although at Wengen, racing on a badly sprained ankle, Lewis managed only a 35th and a 26th. Bill Johnson is as much a nemesis to Doug Lewis as the Austrians are to Johnson. Said Lewis in Wengen: "It has been very hard to take being second to him. I'm real competitive, and I hate his getting all the attention. I'm going to beat him."
Asked about this fierce young rival, Johnson grimaced and said, "Finishing 10th is a lot different than finishing first." For now, that is the last word on the subject. As Johnson said last fall between swallows of ale in his hot tub, "I made the top, and I was the first to do it. No one can take that away—ever."