‘Ski to Die’ – the Bill Johnson Story

1984 Olympic gold medalist decides to take himself off life support

This story originally ran on Nov. 23, 2011. In the wake of Bill Johnson’s decision to take himself off life support, we’re running it again to remember the American badass that won the country’s first Olympic downhill. —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.

Photo: John Clary Davies

Photo: John Clary Davies

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.

Add a comment

  • Electrabasehead

    It is a shame the skiing community that cheered him on, rode his coattails and made money on Bill Johnson has essentially forgotten him.

    Does anybody else find it tragic that the USSA / USST doesn’t have any type of contingencies for their former Olympians, let alone gold medalists?

    • brett

      Just because someone skied in the Olympics and won a gold is not an excuse to forever think they don’t have an obligation to work. I guess Johnson never understood that.

  • brian hessling

    I agree with E.head. This is a rough story that needs to be told.

  • Boots

    I agree with both comments above… Bill was in the 80′s what Bodie was in the early 2000′s. What a difference 20 years makes. Bill should have had better people behind the scenes, mostly the people who profited from his stardom and great personality, namely the USSA /USST. They should step in now and help as much as possible in my opinion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.herrick.9469 Scott Herrick

    Bill Johnson was the man in 1984 I’ll never forget that downhill win for the gold.Trying to make a comeback at age 40 is hard in any sport. Downhill ski racing is the hardest sport in the world and Bill was one of the best ever. Losing a child and then losing his wife. Bill you will always be the 1984 champ.

  • lorlor

    Our family was skiing Big Mountain the day you skied. We saw you working out the day before you skied. We prayed for you and continue to, i am so sorry for your suffering.

  • Paul Koenigshofer

    I was a teenager when Bill Johnson told everyone “He would win it all” To me, this brought some excitement to the standard racing shown on t.v. At the time he was hailing from Van Nuys California, where my grandparents lived. I thought he was so cool and a bad-ass. He had the cockyness to challenge the dominating Austrian’s, and then proved to everyone that he indeed was good enough to be the best in the World! I have so much respect for this guy, and I think there should be way more tribute given to him by our current ski community and industry! Bill Johnson is as real as they come. A rebel punk rock attitude doing it his way the entire time. Tragedy and glory. The life of a Champion!

    • Craig Bethke

      Just saw 30-30 on TV last night. Bill’s ex-wife, wanting the spotlight and money drove him to his severe accident. I really feel for his two sons.
      They lost a great (Dad) if only given a chance.

  • Jax

    Go Bill!

    • Kristy Neff

      I knew Bill when I lived in Crested Butte, I dated his friend Brad. Brad had a room in their house. It had to be the 2nd child, I remember Brad saying something of what happened to the 1st. even ate a speg. dinner there and thought the same about his wife, but didnt. know her at all. but I really liked Bill and at times had a crush on him not of his glory days. I moved back to Tn and went back out yrs later to have some time during my divorce and had heard he was hurt but didnt know the details. all I know is if I wouldve been his wife, I would not have left him. I ended up rolling a snowmobile back behind Irwin, he would know where and have had to have 3 back surgeries, which has put me on disability. nothing as bad as Bill had it. im so sorry that happened to him. He still is an Olympian to me and I will always remember his smile.

  • powskier99

    my very first pair of skis were atomic red sleds . i was inspired to buy them because of bill johnson , the guy was a major bad ass !

    • HectorHectoria

      I also had a pair of red sleds because of Bill Johnson. They weren’t my first pair, but definitely my favorite. Those things were fast! They got stolen at Winter Park in 1987 and I’m still mad about it. I even refused to go back to WP ever since then until this season.

  • OH

    You are the best Bill

  • Paul2281

    I just watched the Documentary of Bill Johnson on tv….It brought tears to my eyes….It was the saddest story I`ve watched…The ending just shook me..His Sons not visiting him,being stuck in a chair…We hope this never happens to us or a loved one….

  • big fan

    How can US Skiing leave an American hero and the guy that paved the way live a life in destitue? Maybe Bode and Lindday and Shaun can chip in and help out the man who made it all possible for US skiers.

  • Rich

    They don’t give a shit about our vets why would they help him? Your a beast man!

  • AlanCollinge

    I just watched Sochi, loved the snowboarders and the character they bring to the Olympics. But having had a month or so to reflect on it…I have to say. Wild Bill Johnson was the Truest Goddamned Olympic Champion this country has ever known, and probably will ever know.

    I didn’t hear his name mentioned even once during the Sochi coverage, and all the media I have seen (like this article) reads like a cautionary tale rather than a description of a man who bucked the odds, bucked the law, and almost by shear force of will alone showed that he was worthy of the title, despite the chorus of echoes to the contrary.

    I bet he would have never been allowed on this most recent Sochi team, with all the political correctness going on. And that is a true national shame. Shame on us. Shine On Bill Johnson! Your Nation Weeps For Your Memory!!

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