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A tribute to Bill Johnson, the greatest American ski racer of them all


With the Olympics around the corner, I was reminded of a piece I wrote two years ago about my favorite Olympian...Wild Bill Johnson.

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In 1984, I was a foul-mouthed 12-year-old California exile living in the snow-white, Mormon enclave of Sandy, Utah. My father’s transfer to this Salt Lake City suburb a year earlier had marooned my mother and I in an inhospitable new world of cold winters, strange temples, and creepily polite prejudice.

I’d already managed to find considerable trouble in the notoriously lax California public school system, so becoming Public Enemy Number One at Brookwood Elementary in Sandy didn’t require much effort. I intentionally offended the Mormons (every-other person in town). I provoked or was provoked into a fight every day. I shut down power to the entire school. I began walking home to eat lunch with my mother.

On my own time, I gracefully responded to the adversity by learning to huff gasoline, smoke cigarettes and vandalize my suburban neighborhood on nocturnal sojourns. Fortunately, before I could immolate myself in the garage, my mother hooked me up with the two other non-Mormon kids in the area, and I discovered a positive outlet for my pre-adolescent angst—skiing.

Discovering a bit of natural ability, I joined the Snowbird race team and became a relatively accomplished back-country powder skier with a penchant for cliffs. But my true love was speed. Flat out, heedless, cannonball speed. I’d bomb anything. My technique was disgraceful, my respect for others reprehensible, and my complete lack of interest in self-preservation outrageous.

So it was with great excitement that I watched the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. I was transfixed by all of the alpine events, but nothing moved me like the Men’s Downhill. It was the purest of events. One man, one big hill, fastest to the bottom wins. I was disappointed to discover the US had never won gold in the Men’s Downhill and their prospects didn’t look any better in ‘84.

Enter “Wild” Bill Johnson.

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I immediately identified with this man. According to his Olympic bio, he was an angry troublemaker as a kid and only became involved in skiing because a judge sent him to a ski academy after he’d stolen a car at age 17. Brash, unapologetic, and arrogant, Johnson promised he would win the gold. He pissed people off. I loved him instantly.

And then, to everyone’s surprise but perhaps his own, this smirking, smack-talking American proceeded to back it all up. In a black helmet and striped pink body suit, Wild Bill Johnson bombed the hills of Sarajevo years before the war, and instantly eclipsed Joe Montana as my all-time sports hero.

Today, 22 years later, I clearly remember the way he raced with complete and utter abandon, the way his breakneck, edge-of-the-knife, death-wish runs down Mount Bjelasnica that winter belied masterful technique.

I remember leaping up and down in my parents’ living room and screaming with joy when he threw on the brakes with a huge explosion of snow at the finish line and craned his neck back to see the clock reading an astounding 1:45.59. I remember how cool and laidback he looked as, one at a time, 55 other skiers, including the Swiss and Austrian favorites Peter Muller and Anton Steiner, failed to match his time. The guy was nails. He was fearless. He was my hero.

After the Olympics ended, Bill Johnson and I went our separate

ways, but I never forgot him. After two more years in the gulag of Sandy, I was given a choice by my parents: stay in Utah and train for the Junior Olympics, or move back to California to start high school with my friends, and exchange my race bib for my old wetsuit. It was a no-brainer.

I returned home to California and wound up finding plenty of trouble with my old friends. Despite decent grades and various academic honors, I had a hard time staying out of trouble. I was brash, arrogant and reckless. I was drawn to rebels and marginalized geniuses. I made bad decisions, traveled the world and fell into writing. For every great success there was an equally great failure. For every step up, there was a slip back down. For every score there was a bust. But the road I walked was cream puff compared to my hero’s.

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After the Olympics, Wild Bill Johnson found fame with a flurry of movies, book deals and endorsements, but the fleeting happiness was brutally wiped out when first his son drowned in a hot tub, and his marriage failed. Shaken by these events, Johnson more or less disappeared from the public eye for the better part of a decade.

Then, 15 years later, Bill Johnson suddenly reappeared and began training for the Olympics again in an effort to beat his depression. But his epic “comeback of the millennium” was cut horrifically short in 2001 when he caught an edge and went down at 70 mph during the US Alpine Championships in Whitefish, Montana.

Bill suffered a traumatic brain injury, spent three weeks in a coma and lost six years of memories. Surgery on his severed tongue affected his speech. By all accounts, he’ll never be the same. One source close to Bill says he has the mentality of a 6 year old.

If that wasn’t enough, the media grossly misreported an incident last year that Bill was arrested for drunk driving. Not true. Police thought he was drunk because of his brain injury, speech and behavior. Bill became frustrated and was arrested and jailed for assault. His alcohol level test results were “00.0.”

It’s an ignoble fate for a great American sports hero. For whatever reason, I’ve taken each tragic turn in his life deeply personally. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go down for Wild Bill Johnson. He deserved so much better.

But then, no one forced Bill Johnson back into his bindings. There are risks involved with traveling at 70 mph on skis and Bill knew them better than anyone. He only knew one way to ski—like he was about to die. And that’s what I love about the man. He was relentless. He was punk. He was uncompromising. He was insanely gifted. He was out of his fucking mind.

 

*****

Last week, when the Winter Olympics came up in an editorial meeting and I discovered that not one person in the room remembered the name Wild Bill Johnson, I was aghast. I went back to my office and proceeded to grow downright angry.</>

Bill Johnson is an old-fashioned kind of sports hero. He’s not the kind of guy who will ever be a corporate shill. You won’t ever see him on TV saying the right things. He’s too important for that. He is one of the real ones—a beautiful loser, a flawed hero, a tragic champion.

So here’s to you Wild Bill. This Winter Olympic season, I salute you. Thanks for giving the rest of us a hero we can relate to. You are not forgotten.

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[Originally published 2/23/06, Monterey County Weekly]