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Last Run Ever-brash Bill Johnson thought he could regain his gold medal form at 41 and win back his wife. Then he crashed

April 16, 2001
April 16, 2001

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April 16, 2001

Last Run Ever-brash Bill Johnson thought he could regain his gold medal form at 41 and win back his wife. Then he crashed

At her home in Gresham, Ore., DB Johnson reaches into her son
Bill's small duffel and pulls out a black pouch. It's a cheap
cloth case for ski goggles, not a personal treasure. "I don't
like to go through his stuff," she says, carefully loosening the
drawstring, "but someone has to look after his affairs now. This
is one of the things I found."

This is an article from the April 16, 2001 issue Original Layout

She hands over the gold medal Bill won in the 1984 Winter
Olympics downhill. He was a brash, recalcitrant 23-year-old when
he shocked the world in Sarajevo by becoming the first American
to win skiing's most coveted medal. "He left it in his truck,
unlocked, in that bag," his mother says. "He likes it for show,
but somehow or other he doesn't cherish it. He's careless with
it."

Family and friends know the 41-year-old Johnson has been careless
with many things since that Olympic victory. His marriage. His
money. His reputation. His prospects. Recently divorced, broke
and behind in his child-support payments, living out of an RV,
Johnson was at rock bottom last summer when he decided to return
to serious ski racing in hopes of making the U.S. team for the
2002 Games. To some observers it seemed a quixotic attempt to
recapture lost glory, but to his many supporters it was an honest
return to his roots. "He was starting over with what he knew
best," says his ex-wife, Gina Johnson, 36, "and he was in the
best shape I'd seen him in years, maybe ever."

"When I heard he wanted to make a comeback, my reaction was, he's
got the talent--anything's possible if he gets into bombproof
shape," says his former coach, Erik Steinberg. "But I told him
there's a reason people don't come back to downhill racing at 40.
Mark Spitz tries a comeback, and what's the worst that can happen
to him? In our sport people can kill themselves."

Johnson has never been good at listening to viewpoints that
differ from his own. On March 22 he nearly did kill himself,
suffering a horrific fall in a practice run at the U.S. Alpine
Championships at Montana's Big Mountain resort. As of Monday he
was still in a coma at nearby Kalispell Regional Medical Center.

Johnson crashed when he caught an edge at more than 50 mph and
hurtled facefirst into the icy slope. He nearly bit through his
tongue while tumbling through two safety nets. Medics at the
scene kept him from suffocating in his own blood by forcing a
tracheal tube down his throat, and he later underwent four hours
of surgery to alleviate the pressure on his brain caused by
internal hemorrhaging. "We were told he had a 25 percent chance
of living when they first brought him in," says Gina, who was at
her house in Sonoma, Calif., waiting for her and Bill's two boys,
Nicholas, 8, and Tyler, 7, to get home from baseball practice
when she called the hospital for information on her ex-husband's
condition. "I asked when I should bring the boys to see Bill, and
they said, 'Don't wait. Come now.'"

While doctors are hopeful Johnson will make what they call a
"meaningful recovery," they acknowledge it's difficult to predict
what that will be. Friends and relatives are convinced that
Johnson, who can open his eyes but does not respond to direction,
is aware of their presence at some level when they visit him.
"He's like a newborn baby lying on his back, moving his arms and
legs around and not knowing why," says DB, to whom Bill hadn't
spoken for more than a year before his crash in a dispute over
money he felt she owed him. "He doesn't have a pot to pee in,"
she says sadly. "The last time we spoke, he told me I was
responsible for all the bad things that had happened in his life:
the death of his first son, his divorce, his being broke. I guess
he needs a scapegoat. He's not man enough to take responsibility
for his misdeeds."

Johnson's past includes more than a few misdeeds, among them his
arrest at 17 for stealing a car. Sharp-tongued and carrying a
world-class chip on his shoulder, Johnson was a loner who would
fight at the drop of a hat. Twice he was removed from his youth
ski team in Oregon for fighting, and a few months before the '84
Olympics he punched Andy Chambers, a teammate on the U.S. Ski
Team, in the jaw. "He'd pick fights all the time during dry-land
training when we were playing basketball or touch football,"
recalls Steinberg, who also came to blows with Johnson a couple
of times. "It was his personality. He was always testing us,
putting us in situations in which we had to come down on him like
a ton of bricks."

As recently as March 2000, Johnson got into a barroom skirmish in
Jackson Hole, Wyo., in which he allegedly punched a woman and bit
a man on the arm at the Mangy Moose saloon. After leaving the
bar, according to the police report, Johnson was found walking
along a highway and was arrested for public intoxication and
interfering with an officer. He spent the night in jail. When he
failed to appear for his hearing last April, a warrant was issued
for his arrest. The warrant is still outstanding.

"Bill's always been a fighter," DB says. "When he was eight, he
was expelled from his school in Boise for kicking the principal.
He got straight A's in class and straight F's on the playground.
I used to tell him he needed to take a Dale Carnegie class, but
he didn't want to hear about it."

Bill's friends--and he has many--will tell you that beneath his
abrasive exterior lives a sensitive man who was deeply scarred by
the separation of DB from his father, Wally, when Bill was 14.
"Like a lot of people who are strong and self-confident,
underneath maybe he wasn't that way," says Billy Kidd, the 1964
Olympic silver medalist in the slalom.

"Bill was generous and loving," says Gina, who met Johnson in
1986 and married him the next year. "He had a hard childhood.
When his family was splitting up, he was left alone a lot, and
his dad was a serious alcoholic. Bill had a hard time trusting
people."

Financially, that proved costly. After brazenly telling the world
that his gold medal meant "millions, we're talking millions,"
Johnson had Wally, who'd been in the construction business, act
as his manager. "Wally saw dollar signs, and Bill wanted to take
care of him," DB says. "He paid his father $3,000 a month to live
in his house in Malibu and make deals for him. Lots of people
came to them with offers, but greed got in the way; they demanded
too much, and the offers went away. By the time I got involved,
it was a joke trying to get anyone to listen to me."

DB took over as Bill's manager in 1986, but his skiing career was
already in a downward spiral. After winning three World Cup
downhills and the Olympic gold in '84, Johnson never won a medal
on the World Cup circuit again. He retired from the U.S. Ski Team
in the spring of '90, and that fall his and Gina's first son,
Ryan, was born.

The plan was to move to Crested Butte, Colo., where Bill had
accepted a job as a resort's ski ambassador for $35,000 a year
and intended to build houses in partnership with Gina's father,
Dennis Ricci. However, a month before the move, tragedy struck.
In November 1991, while Gina was taking a shower, 13-month-old
Ryan drowned after falling into a hot tub at their house in Lake
Tahoe, Calif. A guest had used the tub and left the sliding door
open, and Bill didn't notice Ryan crawl outside. Ryan was kept on
life support for three weeks before Bill and Gina made the
decision to pull the plug.

Given what had happened, the move to Crested Butte was a welcome
new start. Both Nicholas and Tyler were born while the Johnsons
were living there, but Bill gradually grew disenchanted. "He got
his contractor's license and got all excited about house
building," Gina says, "but then he discovered, Wow, this is a lot
of work. He grew restless. He wanted more."

Johnson was competing half a dozen times a year in legends' races
against the likes of Kidd and Stein Erickson, earning a minimum
appearance fee of $7,500 per race, but he was frustrated by
several aspects of the events, including the handicap system,
which gave the older skiers significant time advantages. So he
quit. "We argued about that," Gina says. "I wanted him to do it
for the income, but he didn't want to, and if Bill didn't want to
do something, he wouldn't do it. He didn't worry about things. I
wanted a plan and stability. I wanted him to grow up. He'd say,
'I don't want to grow up. It's no fun.'"

After his contract with the Crested Butte resort expired in 1995,
Johnson, a two-handicap golfer, wanted to try to qualify for the
PGA Tour. He sold the family's 3,400-square-foot trailside home,
which he had built with his father-in-law, for $450,000 and
bought a 37 1/2-foot RV. He and Gina loaded the kids and the dog,
Siskiyou, an Alaskan malamute, into the RV and spent six months
traveling from golf course to golf course, mostly in California,
practicing. "Finally I put my foot down and told Bill I couldn't
live like that anymore," says Gina, who now supports herself as
an orthodontist's assistant. "I needed a house. He'd tell me I
wasn't the girl he'd married. No. I wasn't 21 anymore, and I had
two kids."

They bought a home in San Diego in July 1996, and Bill, an avid
computer user, began day trading. Up one day, down the next: It
drove Gina crazy. "I thought of it as gambling," she says. Bill
was still working on his golf game and occasionally skiing at
pro-am events and on the Legends circuit. "At that point he'd
gone through most of our money," Gina says. "He hadn't worked in
two years, and we had mortgage payments on the house and the RV.
He could have done television commentary. He could have coached,
run ski camps, done something with computers. But he wasn't
content with the normal way of life. He liked to live out of a
suitcase. He didn't want that little check every week. He wanted
the big money."

Gina filed for legal separation in November 1998. "He was in and
out of the house for the next year and a half," she says. "He
thought I'd fall apart and want him back. I think he was in shock
when I finally moved back home, to my uncle's farm in Sonoma."

Soon after she left him, in December 1999, Bill went to a tattoo
party and had SKI TO DIE--which was how he inscribed his
posters--tattooed above his right biceps. He drove the RV to Squaw
Valley, Calif., where he made money as a part-time electrician.
After the divorce went through last August, however, he decided
he needed to go back to what he did best, what made him happiest.
He would shock the world again by qualifying for the Olympics and
winning a medal, and in so doing he would win back Gina and the
boys. He told her she'd better be there when he crossed the
finish line.

If the dream was delusional, it was gilded by a purity of purpose
that wasn't lost on the skiing community. Johnson's comeback
wasn't a joke. It was in many ways inspirational, especially to
the current generation of American racers, to whom Johnson is an
icon. "He was chasing a dream that he knew wasn't necessarily
going to happen," says Chad Fleisher, a top U.S. downhiller. "He
didn't seem bitter about it. He seemed happy to be there and to
be racing. That was cool."

For all his faults, Johnson commands a surprisingly fierce
loyalty, even from those he has disappointed or hurt. That his
checkered story has touched people is apparent from the hundreds
of letters and e-mails pouring into the hospital and from the
stream of friends who've appeared at his bedside, telling him old
tales of their high jinks, trying to spark a light of recognition
in his eyes. "I was sitting at his bedside, reading him all these
e-mails, thinking, Come on, Bill, wake up," Gina says. "We all
love you. Now grow up."

A lot of people are praying he gets another chance.

COLOR PHOTO: TONY TOMSIC Last Run At 41, brash Bill Johnson thought he could regain his gold medal form from the Sarajevo Olympics (above) and win back his wife. Then he crashed [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN SELKOWITZ/NEWSPORT Words of warning Just a week before his near-fatal fall, Johnson showed off the daredevil motto tattooed on his arm: SKI TO DIE.FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: ERIC EINHORN/AP (4) Out of control Johnson's horrific facefirst plunge left him in a coma and Gina (with Nicholas, near right, and Tyler) praying that he'll recover.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BURGESS [See caption above]
"I wanted him to grow up," says Gina of her ex-husband. "He'd
say, 'I don't want to grow up. It's no fun.'"