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Uphill Battle

Johnson Lucky to Be Alive, but He's No Longer the Brash Billy the Kid of Sarajevo

January 22, 2002|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GRESHAM, Ore. — Bill Johnson can't take his eyes off the fly.

It buzzes up and down the windowpane, a prisoner of time and space--its options limited. It wants to break free but can't.

Johnson sits at the kitchen table in his mother's home, back straight, eating a roast beef sandwich. Ever since the March skiing crash, at precisely noon, a synapse fires and the 1984 Olympian asks for lunch.

It is one of the mysterious quirks that accompany his brain trauma.

Beyond the window, and the trapped insect that so fascinates him, is a visage of postcard landscape, lush ferns and tall trees surrounding this rural route home in the shadow of Mount Hood.

Yet, it's that damn fly slamming into glass--buzz then bang, buzz then bang--that has Johnson transfixed.

"Mom," Johnson finally says. "I want you to kill that fly."

Later, out of earshot from her son, D.B. Johnson confides, "This was not one of his better days."

Two weeks later, Johnson would make news when he got back on skis and took a leisurely run down a slope at Timberline Lodge.

This was one of his better days, a slosh-step forward feat for the downhill champion who nearly lost his life last spring mounting a comeback attempt for a berth at the Salt Lake City Winter Games and instead will carry the Olympic torch for a short stint Wednesday through the town of Longview, Wash.

This recovery, however, is far from over.

It may never be over.

Physically, at 41, Bill Johnson still looks like a torpedo, comfortable on this sunlit Sunday in a baseball cap, fleece sweater and khakis. The 170-pound body sports scientists dubbed as aerodynamically perfect for ski racing is lean and taut.

Incredibly, Johnson did not break a bone in the crash. The only obvious sign of injury is the tracheal scar on his throat. Had the rescue team not made that incision, Johnson would have choked on his own blood right there on the snow, in Whitefish, Mont. The force of the face-first plant at 50 mph during the triple-A race caused his teeth to clamp clear through his tongue.

Today, Johnson and tongue have been reunited to savor the mayonnaise on roast beef and make casual, if not disjointed, conversation. The family does not trust him yet alone over a hot stove--he has been known to walk away from simmering soup. A list taped to Johnson's mirror reminds him of daily tasks: Brush teeth, shave, take pills, make bed.

Johnson's progress to date, from steps to skis, last rites to last night, has been remarkable, yet his comeback is far too short on memories--blanked out like someone recording over a cassette tape.

He cannot remember what he did last summer, or the one before, or the death of his father, Wally, six years ago.

"I don't remember that my dad died," Johnson says. "Apparently, he's dead, but I just don't know it. Everybody says my dad has died, but to me, it hasn't happened."

He hugs his two young boys, Nick and Tyler, but cannot make a cognitive paternal link. They come over for Thanksgiving, yes, he tousles their hair, yes, he loves them to death, yes, yet there is an awful disconnect.

"They know who I am but I don't know them," Johnson says. "I don't. I don't know them at all."

What does he know?

"I know I'm Olympic champion," he says. "I know that last year, I must have wanted to become Olympic champion again."

Some things are better forgotten--like the bitter 1998 separation and divorce from Gina that people say prompted his longshot (insane?) comeback attempt.

He might prefer to be spared the gory details of his subdural hematoma; the beat-death's-clock helicopter ride from Big Mountain resort. Good thing he was lost in a coma when a brilliant young neurosurgeon removed a fair chunk of his skull, literally put it in a freezer for a week and then fitted it back on his head like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

He is getting better, yes, slowly, steadily, but this is not Bill Johnson.

The crash has knocked the punk out of him, the unabashed arrogance it took to become the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in downhill.

Remember that? Johnson going to Sarajevo and telling the world he, not one of the Austrians, was going to win the downhill.

"I don't even know why everyone else is here," he said. "Everyone else can fight for second."

It was the sort of braggadocio that typically sours foreigners on American sportsmen, also the kind of trash talk that can backfire.

Johnson, though, knew the instant he turned tips down that Bjelansnica course in the former Yugoslavia that what he said was no snow job.

Although Johnson was ready to conquer the world, the world was not so ready for him. He was dead wrong when he said his gold medal would be worth "millions."

One magnificent run on his "Red Sleds" could not make everyone forget what a pain in the rear he could be, an American, born in Canoga Park, a guy who ripped off a car as a teenager. He was not Suzy Chapstick.

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