by | Feb 11, 2002 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

PARK CITY, Utah — In the dream, Bill Johnson was flying down another Olympic mountain. In the dream, he wasn’t 40 and slow, he was somehow young and faster than ever.

In the dream, his wife, Gina, was waiting at the finish line, the wife who had divorced him because of his frustrating immaturity. When he won the gold medal she would take him back. That was in the dream, too, maybe the best part.

The money that he had so anticipated — “millions!” is how he’d answered reporters back in 1984 when they asked what his gold medal would mean — that money came in the dream. And his two sons? They moved back in with him. They had a nice house again. The bills went away. In the dream, everyone was cheering for (Wild) Bill Johnson, the way they did before things went bad and he was jobless and alone, living in an RV.

The dream was what he wanted, so he chased it madly. Never mind that he hadn’t raced in more than a decade. Never mind that nobody comes back to an Olympic downhill in his 40s.

“He was aiming for Salt Lake,” said his stepfather, Jimmy Cooper. “He wanted to do what he does best.

“Mostly, he wanted his family back.”

In the dream, it happened. But dreams are for nighttime. Last March, in the broad daylight of Whitefish, Mont., Bill Johnson, an aging ex-champion, went down, face first, at 50 miles an hour.

And the world went black.

Now, 11 months later, here was Johnson at the men’s Olympic downhill Sunday. He had indeed made it to Salt Lake City — but not the way he planned. And not as the man he once was.

He was in the stands, wearing a green ski parka with the hood pulled up. Suddenly, in the middle of a question from a reporter, he pulled the hood off his head.

“You wanna know why I am the way I am?” he said, his words a bit slow and foggy. “It’s because of this.”

He rubbed the scalp beneath his matted blond hair.

“They took a quarter inch of my brain.”

He turned.

“Go ahead. Feel it.”

The reporter rubbed his head.

“You feel it?” he asked. “Why did they do that?”

A white-haired woman standing next to him leaned in and said softly, “They had to relieve the pressure.”

Johnson nodded. “Yeah. Relieve the pressure.”

He sighed.

“This is my mom,” he said.

The terrible crash

“WE ARE 15 MINUTES FROM THE START OF THE RACE!” Up near the start hut, the best and bravest skiers were preparing to barrel down the Grizzly course, a twisting icy carpet so steep that most of the run would be made not on the bottom of the skis but on the edges, where the mountain demon lives.

It was an edge that did Johnson in. He caught one during that race in Montana. Doctors later said the crash was so brutal Bill had bitten his tongue in two and his lungs had filled with blood. If not for an emergency air tube that ski medics inserted into his throat, he might have died right there on the mountainside.

Instead, he lived to be airlifted by helicopter. He lived through tedious brain surgery. He lived through a long coma. He lived to awaken and, eventually, when the insurance money ran out, to come home and be with his mother.

But he was not the same brash man who charmed the ski world at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. He was more like a boy. He needed to learn to walk again. He could only handle fourth-grade math. When they put him in a pool — he had been a champion swimmer in high school — he got in and out, in and out, because he couldn’t grasp what to do in the water.

“He had to learn everything over,” his stepfather said. “But he’s made great progress.”

He looked over at Johnson, who was now attracting a small crowd. As spectators asked for autographs, Johnson smiled.

“Do you have a favorite in the race?” someone asked him.

“I have a favorite,” he said, haltingly. “My mom is my favorite.”

“Do you remember the accident?” someone asked him.

He paused. “I have trouble remembering a lot.”

“Do you think it’s just as well?”

Johnson’s eyes lost their focus. “It’s very well. Yeah. Very well.”

Bill Johnson was once the heavyweight champion of the Olympics. It should have been enough. He beat the mountain demon.

But Johnson — who never won a major race after 1984 — couldn’t shake the boy inside the man. He got greedy. He got proud. He got married and fathered children, but never felt obligated to a settled life. Even after a terrible tragedy, in which his infant son drowned in a hot tub, his attitude did not change. He began hatching unlikely get-rich schemes, such as day-trading stocks, or buying an RV and traveling to golf courses in an effort to make the PGA Tour.

“He wouldn’t grow up,” his mother, D.B. Johnson, has said.

It cost him friends. It cost him money. It eventually cost him his marriage and children.

In the end, the mountain demon was all he knew. So he chased it again, hoping to get the glory thing right the second time around.

“Hey, Bill,” came a voice.

“Yeah?” he said, looking around.

“Tommy Moe. Just wanted to say hi. Good to see you.”

“Uh-huh. Good to see you.”

Moe smiled, but when Johnson didn’t seem to register, he walked away. A decade after Johnson’s miracle, Moe came up with his own, winning the Olympic downhill in Lillehammer, the only other American man besides Johnson to do so.

“It’s really sad,” Moe said, when he was far enough away not to be heard.

“We downhillers love the danger. But then again, it’s ironic he was trying to come back when he was 40.

“For me, by the time I was 30, I was done with it.”

Mountain never loses

“FIVE MINUTES UNTIL THE DOWNHILL BEGINS.” You put your life in fate’s hands when you push onto a downhill. Rare is the skier who hasn’t had multiple major surgeries. Many see their careers — or chunks of them — stolen by crashes. Austria’s Hannes Trinkl would have been a favorite Sunday, had he not suffered a fractured skull during a recent training run. Switzerland’s Silvano Beltrametti was paralyzed after a crash in December. Picabo Street, America’s Olympic sweetheart, has been reconfigured more often than a Rubik’s Cube.

Bill Johnson is proof that if you keep playing the mountain, the mountain, like the casino, always wins. His is one of the rare stories in which the siren call of the Olympics had terrible consequences.

His wife did not come back. The kids visit only occasionally. Johnson stays in the lower bedroom of his mother and stepfather’s home not far from Portland.

Still, somewhere underneath is an iron will. His math and reading have improved greatly. He can swim and was able to trot with the torch during the opening ceremonies. He has even been out skiing, more than a dozen times. He says he skis “fast.”

No one corrects him.

At one point Sunday, Bill Johnson reached into a pouch and pulled out the gold medal from 1984. He held it up as spectators admired it.

“I won this,” he said.

“Why did you win it?” he was asked.

“Why did I win?”

He smiled, and his eyes crinkled. “Because I was that good.”

People laughed. Johnson laughed, too. This was the setting he had fantasized about, but not the story. And as younger, healthier Olympians flew down the hill, risking life and limb for that same small hunk of metal, it is worth noting that gold alone, while precious, does not make dreams come true.

Only people can do that.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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