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He was on top of mountain

Johnson carries on, despite fall

Twenty years ago next month, a brash 23-year-old American skier wowed the world by predicting victory in the European-dominated downhill at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.

Just one month before, Bill Johnson had become the first American male to win a World Cup downhill. No American had won Olympic downhill gold.

"I don't even know why everyone else is here. They should just hand the gold medal to me. Everyone else can fight for second place," was his cocky declaration.

Johnson skied to gold with a time of 1 minute 45.59 seconds, as favorites Peter Mueller of Sweden and Anton Steiner of Austria couldn't beat his run.

Life was good for the skiing bad boy, landing him on the cover of Sports Illustrated and garnering congratulations from President Reagan.

Then, on March 22, 2001, tragedy struck while Johnson was trying to make an Olympic comeback at age 41 on Whitefish, Mont. During a preliminary race at the US Alpine Championships, he crashed violently. He was near death, and though after three weeks he came out of a coma, he had suffered brain damage.

One year later, he was skiing that same slope.

His speech is still slurred, his memory is spotty, and the right side of his body is weak. But Johnson, who lives with his mother in Gresham, Ore., still skis.

"It was pretty good back then," he said recently when asked about the gold medal. "Right now, it's no big deal for me. Back then, it was in my heart, apparently."

Johnson, who is divorced, has two sons -- Nick, 11, and Tyler, 9 -- who were visiting last weekend, and they all went skiing at Mount Hood. Johnson figures he skis 10-15 times annually. Recently, he flew to Austria for Franz Klammer's 50th birthday party. Klammer won five World Cup downhill titles in the late 1970s and early '80s, and had a gold-medal-winning downhill run in the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics. Johnson beat him in '84.

At times during the phone interview, Johnson's mother, DB Johnson, could be heard in the background, filling in the blanks for her son when he couldn't remember something. His thoughts broke off at times, and he went off on tangents.

Johnson's mother says her son spends a lot of time on the computer, answering e-mails and playing games. He also runs errands and does projects.

Johnson, now 43, will be at Cranmore Mountain in North Conway, N.H., Saturday and at the Woodbury (Conn.) Ski Area Jan. 17 for vertical challenge fund-raisers for the Bill Johnson Brain Injury Awareness Foundation. The foundation offers support to those with brain disabilities in conjunction with other organizations, like the Brain Injury Association of New Hampshire and the Gaylord Hospital Sports Rehabilitation Program in Wallingford, Conn. "It would be nice if some of the other racers I was with were there," said Johnson.

Ask him who he raced with, though, and he's not sure.

"My memory since my accident . . . I just don't know who I know," he said.

One person Johnson met back in the glory days was Rod Taylor -- a photo of the two, taken in 1984, hangs in Taylor's living room. Taylor, owner of the Woodbury Ski Area, didn't actually compete against Johnson, but he remembers when the two were forerunners in the national championships at Crested Butte. Taylor, now 60, was a US Ski Team member from 1967-71 and a former national downhill champion.

"He was the first American to do it, to beat the Europeans," said Taylor. "They're so strong. They race big mountains all their lives."

Harold Burbank, a Canton, Conn., attorney and Johnson's childhood friend, remembers when the two were teens enrolled in the same Mount Hood training program and washing dishes at night after a day on snow.

"I lost touch with him after that," Burbank said. "I watched him get famous and then get hurt."

Burbank contacted Johnson's mother after the skier's accident, and got involved in his career, putting together fund-raisers and participating with him in charity golf tournaments (Johnson said he recently shot a 7-under-par 65). A book is in the works, Burbank said.

"I don't believe he can tell you how the day went," Burbank said of Johnson's golden day in Sarajevo. "He clearly knows he was in the Olympics and he won the gold medal."

Though Johnson's memory may be tarnished, his gold medal still shines.

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