Bill Johnson, the boastful Olympic ski champion in 1984, is in a coma after crashing during a comeback attempt at age 40.
Johnson, trying to win a a spot on the team for the 2002 Olympics, suffered severe head trauma Thursday during a downhill warmup to the U.S. Alpine nationals that open today.
"He was unconscious at the scene and has not regained consciousness," U.S. Ski Team spokesman Tom Kelly said. "That's not necessarily good or bad. They have him stabilized, but in a coma condition."
‘It’s a Matter of God and Time’
Johnson needed a breathing tube at Big Mountain Resort, and emergency room doctors at Kalispell Regional Medical Center did a tracheotomy. Surgeons later drained blood from his brain and left lung before his brain swelled.
"It's a matter of God and time," Kelly said. "They'll just continue to follow his progress. There's nothing more neurologically that can be done for him right now."
Hospital officials referred questions to Kelly.
Known for Confidence, Independence
Johnson is most famous for brashly predicting victory at the Sarajevo Olympics, then backing it up.
It was the same kind of risk-taking that led him to race again. After he was divorced earlier this year, Johnson committed to resurrecting his career. He even had a tattoo, reading "Ski to Die," put on his right biceps.
"He's a wild and crazy guy. He is a very independent guy. He has a lot of qualities of the on-the-edge character you need to be a successful downhill ski racer," Kelly said.
Johnson played the role of ugly American to the hilt in Sarajevo. As day after day of snow buried Mount Bjelasnica, forcing organizers to postpone the downhill, Johnson talked and talked.
"It's a battle for second place," he said.
His boasting was ignored by European rivals, who deemed him reckless and immature. Johnson had won a World Cup downhill in Wengen, Switzerland, before the Olympics but only after nearly crashing midway down.
When the Olympic downhill finally was held Feb. 16, 1984, a week after it was scheduled, Johnson's victory was a real shock, especially because he beat Swiss great Peter Mueller by a whopping 27-hundreths of a second.
"He won that championship in another era, but he is an Olympic champion," Kelly said. "People know him. They associate with him. He accomplished some things a lot of skiers just dream of."
Trying to Mount Comeback
After the Olympics, Johnson won two more World Cup races during the 1984 season, then retired after 1988-89. A year ago, he approached Ski Team officials about trying again.
"It would have been easy for people to say, 'This guy can't do it,"' Kelly said. "Most of us looked at him and said, 'This is an Olympic champion. If he wants to come back, he needs to have that opportunity."'
Team officials helped him enter early-season races on the North American circuit, but the results were unspectacular. Johnson came to Montana ranked 404th in the world downhill standings and 577th in super-G.
Speeds on the Big Mountain course can reach 65 mph, but Johnson had slowed to negotiate a series of turns called the corkscrew when he crashed. Officials estimated his speed at 45 mph.
"He was a very capable downhill racer and had every right and ability to be on that downhill course," Kelly said.
Johnson went through a turn and was negotiating a tight right when his legs spread, he lost his balance and smacked the icy snow. He tumbled through two sets of safety netting.
"The netting did its job, but he did have a significant impact with the snow," Kelly said.