This story originally ran on Nov. 23, 2011. Johnson died in his assisted living home in Gresham, Oregon, on Thursday. He was 55. —Ed.
Bill Johnson is breaking the rules. He’s not supposed to be smoking without the supervision of a nurse, but here I am, reaching over his gray plastic safety vest, which is supposed to keep him from catching on fire, and lighting his Marlboro. It’s just us on a crisp, foggy, colorful day in rural Oregon. We don’t say much.
Bill’s sitting in a six-wheeled Pronto. The electric wheelchair can turn on a dime and burn you down the nursing home hallways. Bill’s sporting a Phillies hat that some folks from Philadelphia sent him. He’s wearing a U.S. Freeskiing World Championships shirt from Snowbird—his mom’s business printed those—and a pretty cozy-looking sweater from the Gap. Bill’s left eye is permanently closed; flakes are building up on those stagnant eyelashes. He sits there kind of slumped over, inhaling his smoke like it’s taking him to another world. This is his respite. Unless a family member takes him out, his four daily cigarette breaks are the only times he goes outside, or interacts with others, all day.
At the 1984 Olympics, Bill became the first American to win gold in an Olympic alpine event. The genuine American badass knew he was going to do it, too. Guy had the Ruth and Ali-like temerity to predict he would. The Euro establishment despised him.
“I told the world I was going to win,” Bill says now, just before he starts drooling his Frappucino. “[The Euros] didn’t like it. They were flabbergasted.”
He went on to win by a solid .27 seconds. Now 51, Bill, who survives on Medicaid, looks like he’s at least thirty years shy of the next youngest resident of Regency Gresham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. Hell, Bill’s youngest son is only a senior in high school, and yet his neighbors are bed-ridden and catatonic. Bingo is at 3, dinner at 6.
Back when he was able to walk, and talk, and ski, Bill made Bode Miller look like Justin Beiber. When he was 17, he stole cars and broke into houses. A judge told him he could either go to prison or college. He chose Wenatchee Valley Community College in central Washington and joined the Mission Ridge Race Team. Ultimately, Bill loaded up his Pinto and drove around to ski races. He slept in the car and started winning events. He won the right to forerun the Lake Placid Olympics downhill, where the U.S. Ski Team noticed his fearlessness.
After the Olympics, Bill’s life turned from romantic to tragic. Bill won events in Aspen and Whistler but was ultimately kicked off the U.S. Ski Team—he got in fights with the coaches, even hit one in the shin with a ski pole, and was out of shape—and failed to make the 1988 Olympic team. Things got worse. In 1992, Bill’s 17-month old son drowned in a friend’s hot tub when a door was accidentally left open. By 1999, Bill’s wife had left him and taken their two other boys with her. Bill was broke, living in a trailer, and unwilling to go to work. So in 2000, at age 40, Bill decided to make a comeback in order to win back his ex-wife. He had the words, “Ski to die” tattooed on his arm.
“He thought if he won again that she’d come back to him,” says D.B., Bill’s mom, “because it was very definitely finances that were interfering with their lives. She loved the limelight. He felt like if he won again he’d be in the limelight and make some money.”
Thing is, Bill didn’t make that much money after his rise to the top in 1984. If he repeated his success, he would make a lot more for his efforts. The idea wasn’t that insane. His coach, an old buddy named John Creel, believed in him. It seemed like if anybody could do it, it’d be the fearless Sports Illustrated coverboy who physiologists claimed had the perfect body for ski racing.
In one of his first races, his legs atrophied from taking eleven years off, Bill caught an edge in an area called Corkscrew in a downhill race at Montana’s Big Mountain. At 60 miles per hour, Bill slammed face first into the snow and careened into the safety nets. He went into a coma for three weeks. Doctors didn’t expect him to live, let alone walk again. Eight months later, he took a run with Creel back at Timberline.
But Bill wasn’t the same. His memory and speech was slow, the right side of his body numb. He lived with his mom for three years before getting his own place in Zig Zag. Since then he’s gotten a lot worse. His speech is practically inaudible, a mix between a whisper, a slur and a groan. D.B. understands him best, and translates most of our conversation, but even she occasionally has a hard time. Midway through our meeting, Bill’s physical therapist walked in the room. She brought us up to speed on his progress. The former Olympian has a hard time standing up, but once he does he’s able to keep himself up by holding on to two rails, and can even swing his legs to and fro.
D.B. tells me that Bill plays cribbage with some folks who visit him regularly. When I challenge him to a game, and toss in a little trash talk, he resembles what I assume people remember from the ’84 Games. He’s competitive, confident and brash. He smiles, dismisses my gamesmanship, and points to the cupboard that holds the cribbage board.
After the game, we go grab another cigarette. I ask him if he misses the mountains. He says he misses snow. Before I leave, I ask Bill if he has any regrets. He doesn’t hesitate. “No,” he groans.