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Skier Bill Johnson Hoping for a Return to Glory

March 15, 1987|Associated Press

TROUTDALE, Ore. — You don't have to call him Johnson. "You can call me stupid, or whatever," he says, "but I'm going to go for it again."

The glow long gone from his triumph of 1984, Olympic gold medal-winning skier Bill Johnson says he has put failure and injury in his past. He's gearing up for the Calgary Olympics of 1988 in hopes of winning the men's downhill again.

"I always felt like '88 would be my year and '84 was really out of the question as far as winning gold medals was concerned," he said, "and then it came so quickly that I really hadn't prepared myself for receiving all the attention.

"Now I've had that experience, and now I'm ready for it."

Johnson says he is a wiser man today, although he's still much like the brash and brassy 23-year-old who, in 1984 at Sarajevo, became the first American male ever to win a skiing gold medal.

"I think I've gone through a big circle and now I'm back to normal," he said. "I don't think I changed that much anyway. I had a little bit more money, but that was about it."

Failure came swiftly for Johnson, as did success.

The glare of publicity distracted him, he said, and led to a disastrous 1985-86 season, when he left the U.S. team in a dispute over proceeds from a television movie about his life.

He eventually returned to the squad, and he believes he was regaining form last December when he gambled while traveling too fast on a treacherous stretch of the downhill course in Val Gardena, Italy, crashing to the ground and severely injuring his left knee.

Johnson since has undergone major knee and back surgery. He doesn't plan to ski again until May. He's selling his house in Malibu, Calif., and has returned to his mother's house in Troutdale, a Portland suburb at the foothills of Mount Hood, where he learned to ski.

Johnson, who will turn 27 on March 30, is buying a house along the nearby Sandy River. He's fired his management group and has hired his mother to handle his professional affairs.

The money and a chance for a return to glory have kept him in the sport, he says.

"A lot of it has to do with the money I guess, to try to get myself substantially stable for the future so that when I'm ready to retire I have a lot of investments that are steady income," he said.

"The other main reason would be just to go back and try to win another Olympics," Johnson said. "I enjoy ski racing and downhill is still exciting for me."

Money is not a problem yet. Most of his endorsement contracts run through 1988. "I still have the income," he said. "I can still afford some luxuries."

Three years ago, Johnson outraged much of the competition and foreign press by predicting he would win the downhill. It seemed an outlandish claim, especially in a sport dominated by Europeans.

"The press called me arrogant and cocky. . . . Here I was an American, with an American never winning a gold medal in any skiing event period, and saying, 'Hey, you guys are second place. Why are you even here?' "

He said he wasn't trying to psyche out the opposition.

"I didn't have any psychological thinking about it," Johnson said. "I knew I was going to win. That was all there was to it. I had the race. I had the skis. I had everything going for me."

He's no less confident about his ability to return to world-class form now, although he isn't predicting any more gold medals just yet.

"I don't plan on wowing anybody in December," he said. "But, by January, I plan on being back in top form."

Johnson said he felt depressed "for about 10 seconds" after his injury. He never lets things "get me down," he said. And, besides, he didn't have time.

Rehabilitation on his knee had begun before he even awoke from surgery, done by Dr. Richard Steadman at Barton Memorial Hospital in South Lake Tahoe.

"When I woke up . . . I was on a continuous passive motion machine, so my leg was going back and forth," he said. "They had me walking the next day.

"If everything rehabs right, I'll have no problems," he said. "I'm having a little trouble right now straightening my leg out. But bending it is fine and the strength is coming back fine. There's a long ways away till next winter."

He plans to ski competitively in Argentina and Australia this summer to prepare himself for a return to World Cup next winter. In the meantime, he has been working out at a local health club.

Johnson admits he has no one to blame but himself for his injury. The U.S. coach, Theo Nadig, had warned him to avoid bumps on one portion of the course.

"I haven't listened to coaches for a long time, so it's in one ear and out the other," he said. "I was taking the fastest line, but it was also the most difficult. It was right over the middle of the bumps."

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