From Val Gardena he was taken over the next two days to South Lake Tahoe, Calif., where the knee genius, Dr. Richard Steadman (SI, Feb. 21, 1983), would try to fix him up. "It was very serious," says Steadman, who has done thousands of knee operations in his career. "Bill had ruptured the medial collateral ligament in three parts and ruptured the anterior cruciate as well. He had scraped the bones together on the lateral side of the joint, and the bone ends were roughened. We had to patch the ligaments together, reposition the good parts, and we created a new ligament out of local tissue on the outside of the knee to give support to the cruciate."
Two screws and a pin were put in to hold all of this together; they remain there still, and will perhaps forever.
The knee repair was "heavy-duty" surgery, Steadman says. But a month later Billy D had a second major operation, this one on his spine. It was something he had been putting off for more than a year and a half. The back injury had occurred in the spring of 1985. "It happened during May camp with the ski team," says Johnson. "I went over a bump wrong, one of those man-made training bumps where the contour is never quite right. I didn't even fall, but I said to myself, Uh-oh. I knew right away I had done something bad." The injury caused pain through pressure on his spinal cord. Eventually the pain became chronic and more intense as the original injury was exacerbated by his high-speed skiing and inevitable falls. "I developed shooting pains in the sciatic nerve, and sometimes I couldn't stand up straight," Johnson says. "I tried a chiropractor and an acupuncturist and finally a masseuse. She traveled with me and massaged the muscles around the injury for an hour a day. That was the only thing that eased the pain. But then she and I broke up and nothing helped. I hesitated about spinal surgery because I knew about too many guys you could just forget about after they had had it."
By the time Johnson had the operation last January, his back was a mess, with four discs affected. Dr. Courtney Brown of Denver, who did the surgery, says, "I couldn't believe he could ski with a back like that."
Johnson was religious about doing the rehabilitative exercises prescribed by Steadman after the operations—for a while. As Steadman says, "He was very good early on, but as soon as he began to feel good, he wanted to go on his own conditioning program. I guess he remembered so well 1984, when he had complete control of his own destiny, that he wanted to do it again." Just before Johnson went to train in Europe in October, Steadman examined the knee, declared it ready for training on snow and said it would also be ready for all-out downhill racing come December, if Johnson was rigorous about his physical conditioning.
Johnson reported two weeks ago that Brown's operation had cured the pain in his back and that the knee was working pretty well. "There's a little difficulty getting enough pressure into turns on my left ski," he said. "I don't have full strength, and I tend to lose the left ski. But I'm not hurting. It's tough getting my confidence back. I'm standing up before the bumps. I'm not used to the speed yet. It will come."
Few people in ski racing hold out much hope that it will—or will have much sympathy for Johnson if it doesn't. He's still a thorn in the side of the U.S. ski team. He refuses to train with the team or to take any advice from its coaches. There's general agreement that he seems to be in less than tip-top physical condition, but Gary Miller, the U.S. men's downhill coach, said at Val d'Is�re, "We really have no idea what kind of shape he's in because he won't let us evaluate him. He has always been much better mentally as a skier than physically. The question now is whether he can hold up."
Johnson has slipped far down the roster of World Cup downhillers. His starting position at Val d'Is�re was No. 52 and at Val Gardena No. 61. Until he produces some finishes in the top 20 he won't be moved up much and will continue to make his runs on chewed-up, rutted courses. That will make it all the more difficult for him to take a real shot at the likes of Daniel Mahrer, the winner of the Val d'Is�re race and one of an army of magnificent downhillers from Switzerland. The Swiss star Pirmin Zurbriggen, placed second, and three other Swiss men finished in the top 10. Third in the race was the happy-go-lucky Italian, Michael Mair.
At Val Gardena a suddenly blossoming Canadian team took over with Rob Boyd and Brian Stemmle, both 21, finishing first and third, respectively. Zurbriggen was second again, and three more of the Swiss—Mahrer, Peter M�ller and Gustave Oehrli—were in the top 15.
These are the skiers who will compete for the gold medal at Calgary. Billy D assumes that he will be there to defend his title, but it's by no means a sure thing. Four U.S. downhillers can go to the Olympics, no more. They will be selected by a set of clearly defined standards that leave little room for subjectivity on the part of the coaches. And there's no loophole that lets reigning champions in on their laurels. Indeed, it's worth remembering that Austria's Franz Klammer did not make the 1980 Austrian Olympic team even though he was the best downhill racer of his era and had won the gold medal at the '76 Games in Innsbruck with an unforgettable run.