The first American to earn an Olympic gold in downhill, whose comeback bid in 2001 ended in a horrific crash on Big Mountain, died earlier this year at 55

Story by Keith Liggett
Mist hung loose in the tops of tall Douglas Firs lining the fairways. A light rain started, then stopped. Then started again. The damp air carried the thick smell of a Northwest forest in spring.

On the first tee, Bill Johnson pulled a driver from his bag on the back of the cart. Looking to John Creel, his ski coach during his comeback bid, he asked, “How long is it?”

“330 with a dog leg right at about 200.”

Johnson set his ball on a tee, took two loose practice swings, stepped to the ball and drove it to the middle of the flat at the dogleg. A perfect shot. In the rain.

The Skamania Lodge Golf Course is known for two singular aspects. The first is the natural beauty surrounding the course. Set on a slope overlooking the Columbia River, the mountains on the other side of the river rise some 4,000 feet in a single sweep. Scottish links-style courses place a course in the natural setting of a coastal plain, the Brandon Dunes courses being the Northwest standard. In the same way, the Skamania Lodge course is placed in the natural setting of the Cascade Mountains.

A thin river of green winding through 200-year-old firs.

The other aspect is the precision required to play the course. The fairways are narrow. Crooked, they rise or drop following the terrain and rarely run flat or straight. The greens are sculpted, delineated from the fairways by the short compact grass rather than individual architecture.

Wood duck pairs swim in the ponds. Canadian geese waddle on the edges. Osprey keen harshly as they soar over the holes near the Columbia River.

The course is the mountains. The mountains are the course.

Rain or no rain, Bill Johnson came out to Skamania Lodge to play golf. And golf he played. On a course most players attempt not to lose balls, Johnson played for par and a few bogeys.

Golf played a significant role in his life before his accident and became important again, a year after his accident. As winter came to an end, golf replaced skiing.

Memory is jogged by little events. A song brings back a memory of a person, a night and a place. A ski mountain brings back memories of victories and former racing friends.

At 9:30 a.m. Friday, March 22, 2002, Bill Johnson looked down from the top of Big Mountain in Whitefish, a ski mountain he could not remember. In the distance, the jagged, snow-covered mountains of Glacier National Park pushed into a blue bird sky.

One year before, at the same time, in almost the same place, Bill Johnson pushed out of the start house for his run at the 2001 Doug and Rollie Smith Downhill Championship. In returning to his roots as a downhill racer, Johnson hoped to regain his past and reclaim the position he held about 18 years before as the premier downhill racer in the world. Johnson ruled the high-speed twisting icy courses of Europe for a wild year in the early ‘80s – the first American to win a World Cup Downhill and the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in Downhill at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games.

At age 40, Johnson was racing for a second chance.

Two-thirds of the way down the course, in a series of fall-away turns known as the Corkscrew, Johnson lost his balance. Splitting his skis, slamming headfirst into the snow, sliding unconscious, he ripped through two retaining fences before coming to a stop at the edge of the trees. The crash played on the nightly news for most of the following week, becoming indelibly etched in the memory of the country.

After over a month in a coma, the first conscious moment Bill Johnson remembered is talking to his mother on May 4, some six weeks after the fall. Doctors remained cautious about his recovery. He would have to re-learn how to speak, how to walk, how to manage even the simplest of tasks, like tying his shoes. His memory remained spotty for several months and then began to fill with dates, people and events. He remembered nothing of the ‘90s leading up to his comeback bid. He did not remember his father’s death. He did not remember getting divorced.

He did not remember the fall.

Bill Johnson skiing for the U.S. Ski Team.

Bill Johnson skiing for the U.S. Ski Team.

One year after the fall, he returned to Big Mountain to thank the people who saved his life and to attempt to jog his memory. His day started with a 5 a.m. wakeup call for a 5:30 a.m. live feed with a national television network in New York City. They discussed his participation in the opening ceremonies of the recent Salt Lake City Olympics. Johnson said Big Mountain seemed familiar, but he believed it was familiar because it is similar to Crested Butte, Colorado, where he served as the ski ambassador in the late ‘80s. In a following interview, he continued to focus on the similarity with Crested Butte.

Riding the Big Mountain Express chairlift, Johnson commented, “I know this mountain, but it was somewhere else. I never raced in Montana.” The chair reached the top. He pointed to the large bowl dropping off the summit, “The Downhill goes down there and it used to go on that little road, but they cut the trail below and took out the flat part.” He shook his head, “But I never raced here. It must be somewhere else.”

As Johnson glided off the lift, camera crews lay in wait anxious to document the return. Four TV cameras, two sound booms, assorted print media, several still photographers. Big Mountain personnel attempted to guide the unruly mass of swarming journalists from the off-loading area of the chairlift.

The word was out. Bill Johnson was back. Big Mountain locals stopped and greeted the familiar Johnson, “Hey Billy, it’s great to see you back.”

He waved and smiled at each one. “It’s great to be back.”

After skiing down to the crash site, Johnson stood talking to the gathered media.

No, he doesn’t remember crashing. Doesn’t remember the last 10 years. He feels very confident on skis.

As the questions and answers flow, a single ski patrol in a telltale red jacket skis down and stops next to Bill Johnson.

Taking his glove off, he holds out his hand. “Bill, I’m Chris Burke.”

Bill shakes his hand. “Were you one of the patrol that helped me?”

“I was the first one down.”

Johnson smiles, “Thanks, thanks a lot.”

“It’s really good to see you skiing.”

“It’s really good to be skiing.”

At the end of the day, the press assembled in the large fireplace room in the Kintla Lodge at the base of Big Mountain.

Behind a table, facing the media, Bill Johnson sat with Charlie Charman, the first doctor to reach him after the crash. Brian Schott, with Big Mountain Resort, introduced the two men. Finishing with, “It’s great to have Bill back and to have him back skiing on the mountain.” Schott opened the questions.

Before anyone could ask a question, Bill Johnson smiled and looked over at Charlie. “I want to thank you.” They shook hands.

“You’re welcome. I am glad I could be there.”

Johnson looked back at the gathered journalists. “I came back to thank the people that helped me after my crash.” He paused.

“To meet all the doctors and ski patrol that helped me. It is really good to be back.”

The question was asked of Charman: What were Johnson’s injuries when he reached him? He listed off several and finished with the fact that Johnson had bit his tongue almost in half, blocking his airway with dislodged tissue and blood. “He was becoming hypoxic, not enough oxygen in his blood. His pulse was dropping and his color changing. It was then we inserted a breathing tube.”

Bill Johnson went into a coma following a crash at a competition at Big Mountain.

Bill Johnson went into a coma following a crash at a competition at Big Mountain.

As the press conference came to an end, a journalist who had walked in only a few minutes earlier, missing the bulk of the questions and all the opening statements by Schott, Johnson, and Charman, asked a last question. “So Bill, why did you feel you needed to come back here one year after your accident?”

The day had been long. Starting at 5 a.m. Johnson had answered this question so many times and in so many ways throughout the day. He hesitated, glanced at Dr. Charman, and replied with a totally straight face. “Revenue enhancement.” He paused again.

“I want more people to come to Big Mountain and get hurt. Charlie needs the business. Right now he has to attack people.”

Johnson pulled down the neck of his T-shirt, exposing the quarter-sized scar from his tracheotomy. “Look what he did to me!”
Charman protested. “They did that at the hospital.”

Johnson dismissed his comment with a wave of his hand, smiling at the assembled journalists scribbling madly. “Charlie needs more people to come here to get hurt, so he doesn’t have to attack people on the mountain.”

Charman laughed. Everyone in the room was laughing. Bill Johnson, the jokester, was back.

The second day skiing at Big Mountain, on the ride up the Big Mountain Express, Johnson remarked, “I did race here.” He looked around at the sweep of the downhill course. “I won in 1982 and in 1989.” He pointed to the spot for the start house. “That’s where they have the start.”

“Do you remember the Doug Smith or the Nationals last year?”

He shook his head. “No, just winning in 1982 and 1989.”

Over the weekend, Johnson remembered other small aspects of Whitefish and the mountain. A large group ambled into Truby’s for pizza. He didn’t remember ever eating at Truby’s. Coming back from the bathroom, he stood at the head of the table. “Hey, I remember the bathroom.”

All through the week, people walked up to him and recalled the time they had shared. He’d laugh, “Good.” Shaking his head, not shy about his memory loss, “I don’t remember, but that sounds good.”

Just a month before at Snowbowl, Johnson skied in a wide track parallel, sometimes planting his poles and sometimes not. Now, he skied fast in the loose arcing manner of a longtime racer. Easily, cleanly, confidently carving, he swept down the mountain with the press struggling to follow.

As Bill Johnson and John Creel made the turn back to the Skamania Lodge Clubhouse, Johnson talked about his future. “There’s a big brain injury group that wants me to be the spokesman. I’d play golf in their tournaments and talk about my recovery.” He smiled.

“Sounds pretty perfect.”

“Yeah, it does, doesn’t it?”

Looking down at his card, he mentally replayed the hole and wrote down his score.

Creel shook his head. “You picked up another stroke on me.”

Johnson smiled and entered Creel’s score.

“I can be a model. I can show people.”

He gazed intently down the narrow dropping fairway to a green backed by water. A par 3, the flag sits on the back third of the green. He picked an iron. After teeing the ball, he took two loose swings, stepped to the ball and drove. It dropped 10 feet short of the pin and stuck on the wet green.

A chance for a birdie.

In the days and months that followed that round of golf, there appeared to be hope. Bill’s life had been a success followed by crash time after time.

As a youth he wandered in and out of the juvenile justice system until a judge told him, choose A or B: ski academy or jail. Bill already skipped a couple grades. He wasn’t dumb. He took A.

At Mission Ridge Ski Academy, he rose at 5 a.m. to train. He washed dishes to pay his tuition and fees. He honed his skiing skills. He prospered and in a couple years was named to the U.S. Ski Team.

His first year on the ski team was notable more for what he didn’t do. He didn’t run. He didn’t train with weights. He didn’t do well on the circuit.

They dropped him.

Bill Johnson won gold at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games.

Bill Johnson won gold at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games.

Johnson traveled to Europe on his own and raced in the Europa Cup. He became the first U.S. skier to win the Europa Cup Downhill title and the Europa Cup overall.

The U.S. Ski Team asked him back. He had just qualified for the following season’s World Cup Downhills. How could they not?

At the Lauberhorn downhill in Wengen, just before the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, Johnson won – the first American to ever win World Cup gold. He followed with a Downhill gold at Sarajevo and the overall World Cup Downhill title. Again, all firsts for an American.

The years that followed were notable again for what he didn’t do. He finished in the top 10 several times, but never stood on the podium again. Socially he lived in the fast lane, but never regained it on the course.

His crash ended his comeback as a skier, but opened the door for him to become a personal model, an inspiration to others recovering from traumatic brain injuries. He was skiing well. Playing golf well. He was back.

But that last recovery never materialized.

A major talent agency offered to represent Johnson. He would be a spokesman. They sponsored pro-am golf tournaments. They placed speakers in events around the world. After disagreements over earnings and fees, the agency no longer pursued Bill.

With that, the concept for a book and a movie died.

Johnson moved to Mount Hood and skied in the winters. He was welcomed by the resorts there as a de facto ambassador. A model for kids: You can make it big, too. After suffering a number of mini-strokes, often a long-term issue with brain injuries, he suffered a major stroke and moved to an assisted care facility in Gresham at the base of Mount Hood, near his mother’s home.

Bill Johnson was a glider. He reveled on smooth flat courses, able to carry his speed through the flats. If you looked at his back in a tuck, it was gently curved and remained even moving down the course. His legs pumped independently, absorbing and releasing through the bumps. Downhills were not groomed tabletop smooth as today, but offered roils and bumps mimicking the slope under the snow.

He went out gliding, in the same manner he skied, carrying his speed across the flats, taking the bumps with ease and humor.

He skied big. He crashed big. He lived big. Through it all, he maintained the ability to glide.

Glide on, Billy.

Bill Johnson died of traumatic brain injury complications on Jan. 21, 2016. He was 55.