'84 gold medalist Johnson still eyes return after crash

By Paula Parrish, Rocky Mountain News
December 11, 2002

BRECKENRIDGE - Can this really be Bill Johnson, the brain-injured guy who couldn't remember how to brush his teeth or hardly walk after nearly dying in a ski-racing accident not so many months ago?

"Come on, photographer, let's go!" the former Olympic downhill champion said Tuesday before he zoomed down "Bonanza," a long green run at Breckenridge ski area.

"I'm up to 40 mph and improving," he said. "See my bib? I'm going to race again."

Delusional? Serious? Or simply charming?

Johnson, 42, always was a charming rebel, long before the almost-fatal ski crash in March 2001 that left him severely brain-damaged and ended his dubious hopes of competing in the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics.

Two months after the crash, he couldn't tie his shoes, comb his hair or remember family members, and he didn't even know who he was - one of the greatest ski racers this country has produced. Even so, his devilish personality managed to surface almost immediately after the crash, pushing aside his fuzzy memory and propping up his hospital-wasted body to ramble around an Oregon hospital gleefully throwing the fire alarms and ditching his nurse escorts.

Still, no one knew how Johnson's recovery would progress - or even if it would progress at all.

Today, 21 months later, the personality and some of the memories and some of the motor skills have materialized together, allowing Johnson to coalesce into much more than just a shadow of his former self.

Bill Johnson - miraculously, unbelievably - knows who Bill Johnson is.

He finally remembers the 1980s and the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, where he won his gold medal in the downhill by one of the widest margins in history.

But more recent times still elude him. For instance, he still doesn't remember the crash.

"I don't remember the times on the ski team, my dad dying (1995) or me taking him to Lake Powell in Utah," he said. "I don't remember retiring from the ski team (1991). I don't remember anything from the '90s."

More recent events, those that have happened in the past year or so, are being retained.

He remembers carrying the torch into the Opening Ceremonies of the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics with another former Olympic medalist, Phil Mahre. They received a huge ovation.

"Yeah, Phil was OK to walk with, but his brother got interviewed and said I'd died," Johnson said. "He was wrong. I didn't die. It was close, but I didn't die."

He remembers skiing on his home mountain, Oregon's Mount Hood, during Thanksgiving with his two sons. (He is divorced.) He remembers their names and ages - Nicholas, 10, and Tyler, 8 - which he couldn't do only two months after the accident, when the simplest conversations faded from his memory almost instantaneously. He also remembers the first day he got back on skis - Nov. 30, 2001, only eight months after the accident, which occurred during a training run at the 2001 U.S. Alpine Championships at Kalispell, Mont.

"Nobody really wanted me to ski again, they were scared," he said, "but I did."

Johnson is in Breckenridge this week, hoping to inspire some of the hundreds of disabled athletes, particularly children, taking part in The Hartford Ski Spectacular, now in its 15th year.

Johnson skis and plays golf - and well, according to best friend John Creel - but his independence is limited. He can't drive a car yet, and he continues his recovery while living with his mother outside Portland, Ore. He took a direct flight from Portland to Denver International Airport, where Caroline Feller, a friend and also a therapist, met him at the airport and drove him to Breckenridge, where she is acting escort.

Fumbling at everyday tasks still causes him frustration and annoyance. But when he's asked to be Bill Johnson - Olympic champion and brain injury survivor - he's in his element.

"This is like an exercise for him, all the interviews and the appearances," said Feller, who works with Johnson by phone before his appearances, working on key phrases and points of interest for that specific event. "When he's here, doing these, signing autographs, he just shines."

While Johnson's recovery has been nothing less than amazing, he still has some mental lapses periodically and tends to ramble. Feller gave him "crib" notes Tuesday for a lengthy - and tiring - series of interviews with television, radio and print media, trying to make sure he hit on all the relevant points of the festival, as he practices to potentially become a spokesman for the Brain Injury Association of America.

"My life has changed a lot," he said. "I have definite feeling that . . . (pause) . . . men can read minds . . . "

Excuse me?

He smiles. Again, it's a bit hard to tell if he's delusional . . . or serious . . . or simply being charming again.

"Bill, why don't you talk about why you are here this week?" Feller nudges gently, passing over one of the reminders.

It says: "Why are you here?"

• "Help others learn to ski."

• "Have people focus on abilities, not disabilities."

• "Visit ski clinics."

Later, on the slopes, Johnson watched a member of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team shoot beneath the lift.

He smiled again.

"Yes, I think it is," he said when asked if his recovery has been miraculous, extraordinary. "Just being alive is so important to me now. I don't know what death is like. Neither does anybody, though - even writers."

Copyright 2002, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.


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