Even near death, Johnson still doesn’t get his due
Ski racing officials never respected him while he was winning World Cups and Olympic gold medals, so why should it be any different with Bill Johnson on his deathbed?
While his fellow competitors sympathized and struggled to deal with the FIS downhill crash that left the 40-year-old Johnson comatose last Thursday at Big Mountain Resort, Mont., the U.S. Ski Team showed no pity.
The Chevy Truck U.S. Alpine Championships went on the next day as if nothing had happened to one of America’s ski racing heroes.
“It was such a horrible crash,” Truckee’s Daron Rahlves told the Associated Press after winning Friday’s downhill. “I told myself that if I won, I would dedicate my victory to him.”
Added Jonna Mendes of the South Shore, “It was a horrible thing to happen. Yesterday, he raced there. I had a hard time knowing someone’s life was in jeopardy because they raced on this course.”
Judging from the competitors’ comments, they wouldn’t have minded if their season-ending nationals had been canceled while the Olympic Valley resident battled to live and see his two children again.
Of course, Johnson is no stranger to disrespect. To this day, Johnson’s downhill gold medal in the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, is treated as if he was the only man racing.
Johnson was no angel off the slopes and unconventional on them during his racing heyday. The brash racer made his share of enemies by predicting that his 1984 Olympic downhill competitors were racing for second place, but he went out and made himself look like a prophet.
In his prime, Johnson was no different than Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods – confident in their abilities and intolerant of losing.
Tommy Moe and Picabo Street can thank him for showing an otherwise psyched-out speed racing team that the Europeans can be beaten.
“When I was on the hill, I was 100 percent focused. When I was not on the hill, I lived to enjoy myself. That is what life is all about,” Johnson said during a February 1991 interview with the Tribune a year after he retired from competitive skiing. “You don’t win World Cups and party too much.”
A back injury in the summer of 1984 contributed to Johnson’s quick fall from the world’s elite racers. After winning the gold medal, Johnson never finished higher than seventh place in a World Cup race. He retired following the 1990 nationals.
“I don’t miss the grind, the 11 months of working out,” Johnson told the Tribune in 1991.
Actually, he did miss it.
Johnson returned to racing this winter, hoping to regain his spot on the team and compete in the 2002 Winter Games. Some thought he was crazy, while others thought he was disrespecting today’s skiers. But just maybe he came back to get the respect he never received.
I attended the 1990 West Coast Conference basketball tournament when Hank Gathers collapsed and died of heart failure on the court. The games didn’t go on. The tournament was canceled and Gathers’ Loyola Marymount team was awarded the conference’s automatic NCAA berth.
The nationals shouldn’t have go on either. The timing wasn’t right to celebrate our country’s rapidly improving ski team. It was a time to give Johnson the respect and courtesy he deserves.
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