I didn’t want another day to elapse without acknowledging the passing of skier Bill Johnson, who died Jan. 21 in an assisted living facility in Gresham, Ore. at age 55. Johnson was in deteriorating health for a number of years following a stroke. But I think that many would say that life killed Bill Johnson.
If you are of a certain vintage, then you remember the moment – the Olympics, Bjelašnica, Sarajevo, 1984 – when brash Bill, in Joe Namath/Muhammed Ali fashion, announced that the gold in the men’s downhill was his and everyone else was skiing for silver. No American man had won the gold in the downhill. But on that day, Johnson was better than gold. He was as good as his word.
In a way, his life followed the trajectory of the film “Downhill Racer,” which starred Robert Redford as another handsome, blond, arrogant skier – brilliant early success and then one long hard fall. A troubled marriage ending in divorce. Family tragedy (a son drowned at 13 months of age). Bankruptcy. A 2001 comeback that ended with a horrific crash and permanent brain damage even as it underscored his motto, “Ski to die.”
The truth is that often the risk-taking that makes an athlete so thrilling is precisely what ill serves him in the everyday world.
There was only the mountain for Johnson.
But on that mountain in that moment at the Sarajevo Olympics he was magic.