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Uphill in the Downhill

Dec. 21, 1987
Dec. 21, 1987

Table of Contents
Dec. 21, 1987

Lakers-Celtics
Dallas Cowboys
Lady Longhorns
Team USA
University Of Miami
Bill Johnson
Morten Andersen
Television
Wrestling Padre
Focus
Point After

Uphill in the Downhill

Badly injured Bill Johnson is trying to regain his gold medal form for the Calgary Games. He'll be hard-pressed to do it

By William Oscar Johnson

Newly wed and presumably newly healed from a terrible assortment of ailments, injuries and operations, America's ski racing hero of 1984, William Dean Johnson, was present and accounted for at the first two World Cup downhills of the 1987-88 ski racing season—the season in which he, and we, must confront his Olympic myth.

This is an article from the Dec. 21, 1987 issue Original Layout

The first race took place on Dec. 7 in the French Alps above Val d'Isère; the second race was last Saturday in Italy's Dolomites above Val Gardena. When those events were over, the myth seemed to be something out of another time, another place, maybe even another sport. Billy D, as he's known on the World Cup circuit, had finished 73rd and 81st, respectively.

His smile was still angelic, his manner defiant. But clearly this wasn't the same roosterish young man who came, crowed and proceeded to win the sport's premier prize, the Olympic gold medal in the men's downhill, at the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo. He did this, you will recall, with a breathtakingly outrageous combination of loudmouth immodesty and ice-cold commercialism.

First, he insulted all the other downhill racers gathered for the Olympics. Johnson, then 23, had won only one World Cup downhill at the time, but he nevertheless swaggered around Sarajevo, bragging into every available TV camera and microphone that the course was designed for him and that everyone else would be fighting for second place. Johnson's mouth might not have had such an impact had the men's downhill not been delayed for a week because of snowstorms and high winds on Mount Bjela‚Äö√¢√†¬¨‚àûnica. The newsless newsmen were desperate for something—anything—to write for their journals or say and show on the tube, and Johnson's audacious boasting fit the bill. Johnson's talk wasn't composed entirely of hot air: The downhill course on Bjela‚Äö√¢√†¬¨‚àûnica was unusually flat, and Johnson is what's known as a glider, a skier who can make his skis flow with uncommon speed over not very steep terrain. And so it was that his windy prediction turned out to be absolutely right.

After he won, someone at a mass press conference predictably asked Johnson what the medal meant to him. Instead of offering mewling cliches about spiritual joy and patriotic glory, he chuckled slyly and said, "Millions, we're talking millions." This, of course, was duly incorporated into Billy D's bad-boy brand of folk hero, along with his early life as a school truant and two-bit juvenile car thief. The myth was born.

But the quadrennium has turned, another Olympics is only eight weeks away, and Johnson, now a not-so-young upstart, will be an object of global curiosity once again. Unfortunately, that curiosity may have the ghoulish quality of gawkers gathered at the scene of an accident. It has been a long, uneven four years for Johnson, with a lot less money than he had expected and a lot more pain.

After Sarajevo, Billy D singed the feathers of the ski racing establishment again by winning two more 1984 World Cup downhills—one at Aspen, the other at Whistler Mountain in Canada. In the process he showed a new ability to perform good technical turns, and even his zillions of detractors had to admit that those victories made Johnson a true downhiller.

But that was the end of that. He has finished in the top 10 five times since then, but hasn't won a race since 1984. Why? Mainly because he has never again come close to being in the peak physical condition of his Olympic year. He is contrite about what happened, and there are no sounds of bluster or braggadocio when he discusses his post-Sarajevo self. In Val d'Isère he said, "If I had to do it over, I wouldn't have spent the summer of 1984 on the champagne circuit. It was chaos. I never knew where I was. Someone would call my mom, someone would call my dad, someone would call my semi-agent. They'd all book me in somewhere, and I'd go and play celebrity. I thought it was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime chance—all the fame and fortune. Actually it wasn't that great. In retrospect I think that if I'd quit racing completely in '84, I could've made maybe $2 million. As it was, I didn't really commit myself to racing, either. My plan was to wait for this season—you know, sort of hang out until the next Olympics and try not to get hurt, and then go in and do it all over again. Maybe it would have worked, but then I went and blew the not-getting-hurt part. Now I've got to come back a long way."

The "not-getting-hurt part" went by the boards during a training run before last year's World Cup race at Val Gardena. It happened on a squirrelly, high-speed section of the course known as the Camel Bumps, where there are at least three different ways to ski a good racing line. "As I came in above the Bumps, there were a lot of spectators waving their arms, which was confusing," says Johnson. "I was on a really fast pair of skis, moving faster than I was prepared for, and suddenly my mind went blank. I spaced for a split second, and I just could not remember which line I'd decided to take. I stood up a little, hesitated, and that was it."

He was going about 60 mph when he took the tumble. He slid on his side at high speed for a while and then a ski edge caught, twisting his leg at the same instant he was thrown into the air. When he came to a stop, he had a fractured right shoulder and a horribly injured left knee.

From Val Gardena he was taken over the next two days to South Lake Tahoe, Calif., where the knee genius, Dr. Richard Steadman (SI, Feb. 21, 1983), would try to fix him up. "It was very serious," says Steadman, who has done thousands of knee operations in his career. "Bill had ruptured the medial collateral ligament in three parts and ruptured the anterior cruciate as well. He had scraped the bones together on the lateral side of the joint, and the bone ends were roughened. We had to patch the ligaments together, reposition the good parts, and we created a new ligament out of local tissue on the outside of the knee to give support to the cruciate."

Two screws and a pin were put in to hold all of this together; they remain there still, and will perhaps forever.

The knee repair was "heavy-duty" surgery, Steadman says. But a month later Billy D had a second major operation, this one on his spine. It was something he had been putting off for more than a year and a half. The back injury had occurred in the spring of 1985. "It happened during May camp with the ski team," says Johnson. "I went over a bump wrong, one of those man-made training bumps where the contour is never quite right. I didn't even fall, but I said to myself, Uh-oh. I knew right away I had done something bad." The injury caused pain through pressure on his spinal cord. Eventually the pain became chronic and more intense as the original injury was exacerbated by his high-speed skiing and inevitable falls. "I developed shooting pains in the sciatic nerve, and sometimes I couldn't stand up straight," Johnson says. "I tried a chiropractor and an acupuncturist and finally a masseuse. She traveled with me and massaged the muscles around the injury for an hour a day. That was the only thing that eased the pain. But then she and I broke up and nothing helped. I hesitated about spinal surgery because I knew about too many guys you could just forget about after they had had it."

By the time Johnson had the operation last January, his back was a mess, with four discs affected. Dr. Courtney Brown of Denver, who did the surgery, says, "I couldn't believe he could ski with a back like that."

Johnson was religious about doing the rehabilitative exercises prescribed by Steadman after the operations—for a while. As Steadman says, "He was very good early on, but as soon as he began to feel good, he wanted to go on his own conditioning program. I guess he remembered so well 1984, when he had complete control of his own destiny, that he wanted to do it again." Just before Johnson went to train in Europe in October, Steadman examined the knee, declared it ready for training on snow and said it would also be ready for all-out downhill racing come December, if Johnson was rigorous about his physical conditioning.

Johnson reported two weeks ago that Brown's operation had cured the pain in his back and that the knee was working pretty well. "There's a little difficulty getting enough pressure into turns on my left ski," he said. "I don't have full strength, and I tend to lose the left ski. But I'm not hurting. It's tough getting my confidence back. I'm standing up before the bumps. I'm not used to the speed yet. It will come."

Few people in ski racing hold out much hope that it will—or will have much sympathy for Johnson if it doesn't. He's still a thorn in the side of the U.S. ski team. He refuses to train with the team or to take any advice from its coaches. There's general agreement that he seems to be in less than tip-top physical condition, but Gary Miller, the U.S. men's downhill coach, said at Val d'Isère, "We really have no idea what kind of shape he's in because he won't let us evaluate him. He has always been much better mentally as a skier than physically. The question now is whether he can hold up."

Johnson has slipped far down the roster of World Cup downhillers. His starting position at Val d'Isère was No. 52 and at Val Gardena No. 61. Until he produces some finishes in the top 20 he won't be moved up much and will continue to make his runs on chewed-up, rutted courses. That will make it all the more difficult for him to take a real shot at the likes of Daniel Mahrer, the winner of the Val d'Isère race and one of an army of magnificent downhillers from Switzerland. The Swiss star Pirmin Zurbriggen, placed second, and three other Swiss men finished in the top 10. Third in the race was the happy-go-lucky Italian, Michael Mair.

At Val Gardena a suddenly blossoming Canadian team took over with Rob Boyd and Brian Stemmle, both 21, finishing first and third, respectively. Zurbriggen was second again, and three more of the Swiss—Mahrer, Peter Müller and Gustave Oehrli—were in the top 15.

These are the skiers who will compete for the gold medal at Calgary. Billy D assumes that he will be there to defend his title, but it's by no means a sure thing. Four U.S. downhillers can go to the Olympics, no more. They will be selected by a set of clearly defined standards that leave little room for subjectivity on the part of the coaches. And there's no loophole that lets reigning champions in on their laurels. Indeed, it's worth remembering that Austria's Franz Klammer did not make the 1980 Austrian Olympic team even though he was the best downhill racer of his era and had won the gold medal at the '76 Games in Innsbruck with an unforgettable run.

Just as this season began, Harald Schoenaar, the director of the U.S. team, said of Johnson's position among American downhillers, "Right now, Bill is fifth in line, so he will need some pretty good results to make the Olympic team." Johnson himself isn't outwardly worried. "All I need are some top 20 finishes in December and some top 10's and top 3's in January. There's no way I'm not one of the four best downhillers in America."

As it turned out, he was indeed one of the four best U.S. racers in Val d'lsère—but barely, and in depressingly poor company at that. His finish left him behind Jeff Olson (No. 31), Doug Lewis (43) and Andreas Rickenbach (64) and just ahead of Mike Brown (78) and Bill Hudson (83). In Val Gardena he was fifth among the five Americans who finished, trailing Lewis (32), Olson (36), Brown (45) and Kyle Rasmussen (65).

Though better results may lie ahead, perhaps the only absolute guarantee of happiness in Johnson's immediate future is his new bride, the former Gina Ricci, 22, a native of the Tahoe area. She managed a women's clothing store in Fresno before she became Mrs. Billy D on Oct. 30 in the town hall of Wagrain, Austria. Johnson met her through mutual friends at Lake Tahoe last January, just three days after his back surgery. Defiant invalid that he was, he began dancing with her despite the fact that he was using a crutch. "After a few steps with her, I felt so strong that I threw the crutch away and did it on my own," Johnson says.

Whether a similar resurrection can occur on the 1988 Olympic ski slopes in February is much in doubt. Even the irrepressible bad boy of Sarajevo was not about to make any outrageous predictions this time. Asked to forecast his performance in Calgary, Johnson spoke with uncharacteristic seriousness: "There will be no predictions unless I'm in top form. And if I haven't won at least one World Cup race and finished in the top three in a couple of others before the Olympics, then I think there will be very slim pickings for me in Calgary."

And what about the rest of his life? "I will never leave ski racing. I love it. As long as I am on TV from time to time, they're still paying me. No, I won't quit ski racing until I am forced out."

PHOTOJOHH E. STEARNS/TAHOE DAILY TRIBUNEJohnson, his left knee in a brace, finished 81st at Val Gardena last week.PHOTOSTEVE POWELL/ALL-SPORT[See caption above.]PHOTOSIMON BRUTY/ALL-SPORTHis recent marriage to Gina has helped Johnson come face to face with his difficult goals.TWO PHOTOSSTEVE POWELL/ALL-SPORTA pensive downhill winner at Val Gardena, Boyd could be the Billy D of '88.PHOTOSIMON BRUTY/ALL-SPORTZurbriggen, last season's top World Cup downhiller, finished second at Val d'Isère.PHOTOSTEVE POWELL/ALL-SPORTWhile Zurbriggen will be a favorite at Calgary, no one is betting Johnson will get there.