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Johnson in coma after ski crash

CHARLES LEVINSON, Sun News Service

BIG MOUNTAIN, MONT. – Bill Johnson, the 1984 Olympic downhill gold medalist and Olympic Valley resident, remained in a coma Tuesday following a crash during a training run at the U.S. Alpine Championships in Big Mountain, Mont. last Thursday.

Though still listed in critical but stable condition, Johnson’s neurosurgeon Rob Hollis said he is showing signs of improvement and has a “very decent chance of making a meaningful recovery,” according to hospital spokesperson Jim Oliverson.

Johnson suffered severe head trauma caused by rapid deceleration when his head hit the ground after his left ski kicked out on a sweeping 70 degree turn on a part of the course known as the corkscrew. He was traveling between 45 and 50 mph at the time of the accident, according to U.S. ski team spokesman, Tom Kelly.

Johnson was unconscious and choking on his severed tongue at the scene, Kelly said. He was promptly helicoptered to Kalispell Regional Medical Center where doctors performed a tracheotomy to clear his airways and a craniotomy to relieve swelling and bleeding in his brain.

A series of fortunate events in the response to Johnson’s accident is credited with significantly improving his odds of recovery. A doctor was on scene within 60 seconds and properly identified and remedied the clogged airway. The doctor was able to authorize a helicopter which took off instantaneously. A neurosurgeon was standing by at the hospital ready to go when Johnson arrived and Johnson was in surgery within two hours of his accident.

“The prompt response was critical,” Oliverson said. “There are these windows of time that they worry about and we were able to hit everyone of them.”

Johnson’s crash came in the middle of a bold comeback to the sport of downhill. At age 40, in the midst of a divorce, Johnson decided he wanted to try and make the 2002 Olympic Team. He slapped a “Ski to Die” tattoo on his right bicep and began training harder than he had trained even at the height of his career. He told The Daily Interlake in January that he had a new-found belief in intensive off-season training and that that would propel him into the 2002 Olympics.

“I know I can do it,” he told the Montana paper.

Many of Johnson’s contemporaries considered the notion of an Olympic comeback unrealistic at such an age, but Johnson built a career of thumbing his nose at the naysayers.

Franz Klammer, an Austrian downhiller who raced against Johnson in the 1980s said that the comeback was unrealistic.

“It’s the thing you’re dreaming of, but there’s no way,” Klammer said. “You are 40 and you cannot get the time back. The comeback was never realistic.”

But 17 years ago in Sarajevo, Johnson was hardly a realistic pick for gold, stacked as it was with among others the legendary Klammer and Swiss great Peter Mueller. During a three day storm delay, Johnson spent the time with his bat pointed over the left field fence, the Dimaggio of downhill.

“Everyone here is fighting for second place,” he repeatedly told reporters in Sarajevo before winning gold by a decisive .27 seconds.

Another longtime friend of Johnson’s and a teammate of his from 1981-85, Barry Thys recalled a similar story at the Aspen World Cup two weeks later.

As Thys tells it, Johnson woke him up in the middle of the night by throwing a 9 volt battery at him and telling him he might as well not race, that he should just get the band together for Johnson’s victory party. Sure enough Johnson won.

“He was brash and rude and had a knack for getting under people’s skin and putting a little doubt in their minds,” Thys said. “He really won a lot of races with his mind.”

But even Thys said the comeback was a longshot and not necessarily the wisest idea.

“I don’t think old guys should be running downhill,” Thys said. “In the past few days two old downhillers have gone down in similar situations. You have to ask yourself is it worth it?”

Thys was referring to former Canadian downhiller Dave Irwin, 46, who just 24 hours after Johnson’s accident hit his head in a Skiercross and remains in grave condition.

Kelly maintains that the former Olympic champion had every right to be racing.

“If you watch him racing and you look at the condition he’s in, he’s not out of his league,” Kelly said. “He’s competitive and he’s beating people.”

Johnson’s 1984 run at the top would be the climax of his career. He won the World Cup at Wengen, Switzerland.

Two weeks later he won Olympic gold.


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