It was supposed to be a daring comeback by a former champion, an audacious bid by a 40-year-old man to win big at a young man's sport.
When Bill Johnson last raced at the U.S. Alpine Ski Championships at Big Mountain, Mont. on March 22, he needed a spectacular run to keep alive his hopes of winning a spot on the 2002 U.S. Olympic Ski Team.
But as he shot down the slope at nearly 60 mph, he caught an edge, slammed into the icy snow and crashed through two sets of safety netting. When emergency workers reached him, he'd sustained severe head trauma and was choking on his own blood.
He had already lost his home, job and family. Suddenly it looked like he might lose his life as well.
Winning Fame and Love
At the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Johnson was a cocky young American who improbably predicted he'd take home the gold medal.
"He was considered very brash to come onto the circuit and predict victories for himself," says Bob Beattie, U.S. skiing coach and TV commentator. "Here's a hotshot American that comes wandering in and had a lot of nerve."
But Johnson backed up his bravado and shocked the world when he became the first American to win gold in Olympic skiing. Magazine covers, endorsement deals, TV shows, and a movie of his life followed his victory.
And so did love. In 1985, he swept Gina Ricci off her feet. Within a year, they were married and on the road traveling the World Cup ski circuit.
Life Goes Downhill
But Johnson could not regain his champion form in the years that followed.
Four years later, he was off the Olympic team; three years after that, he was out of World Cup skiing altogether.
Adding to his professional disappointments, his personal life turned tragic. Bill and Gina lost their first son, 13-month-old Ryan, when he drowned in the family hot tub. The couple had two more children.
Johnson — who had grown accustomed to speed — did not like the slower pace of everyday life.
"He just wasn't content," says Gina. "He always wanted to do something else or something more."
The family kept moving, for a time living in an motor home. Johnson switched jobs, with stints on the golf circuit and building houses.
In 1999, he and Gina were divorced.
Johnson was heartbroken. He'd lost custody of his two boys, his marriage was over, he had no job and no real home.
Return of the Daredevil
But he did have an idea: He would make the skiing comeback of the millennium.
Not only would he regain his status as a world-class skier at age 40, but he would win back his money, fame and wife as well.
"He said, 'I'm going to win this medal and you better be there in two years,'" says Gina.
Gina wanted to tell her ex-husband it was a bad idea, but she knew he was not one to listen to such advice. "If you told him to slow down," she says, recalling riding in his Porsche, "he'd drive a little faster."
Slowly, Johnson skied himself into shape.
Though he was nearly twice as old as his competitors, the same cockiness from his youth persisted. "I can beat these guys," he e-mailed a friend.
At a party, just as his comeback was beginning, he impulsively got at tatoo on his right bicep. It reads, "Ski to Die."
As he was preparing for the final competition of the season at Big Mountain, Johnson's coach warned him to take care on one treacherous turn, the last one on the course, called "the corkscrew."
But characteristically, Johnson skied hard and had nearly finished the turn when he lost his balance and flew off the course.
In an instant, his comeback was over.
An emergency tracheotomy was performed on the mountain and he was airlifted to a hospital, where emergency brain surgery was performed.
Johnson had a collapsed lung, a four-inch section of his skull was removed and he lay in a coma for weeks.
"He was being held on by life support until we were able to say goodbye," says Gina.
But in recent days, Johnson has made great progress. He has taken his first steps, winked and uttered his first words. He is now able to eat and doctors believe he is regaining his cognitive function.
"I think Bill went from the top and I think he's hit bottom," says Gina, who is now back in touch with her ex-husband. "And I just hope he can make it back up."