Newly wed and presumably newly healed from a terrible assortment of ailments, injuries and operations, America's ski racing hero of 1984, William Dean Johnson, was present and accounted for at the first two World Cup downhills of the 1987-88 ski racing season—the season in which he, and we, must confront his Olympic myth.
The first race took place on Dec. 7 in the French Alps above Val d'Is�re; the second race was last Saturday in Italy's Dolomites above Val Gardena. When those events were over, the myth seemed to be something out of another time, another place, maybe even another sport. Billy D, as he's known on the World Cup circuit, had finished 73rd and 81st, respectively.
His smile was still angelic, his manner defiant. But clearly this wasn't the same roosterish young man who came, crowed and proceeded to win the sport's premier prize, the Olympic gold medal in the men's downhill, at the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo. He did this, you will recall, with a breathtakingly outrageous combination of loudmouth immodesty and ice-cold commercialism.
First, he insulted all the other downhill racers gathered for the Olympics. Johnson, then 23, had won only one World Cup downhill at the time, but he nevertheless swaggered around Sarajevo, bragging into every available TV camera and microphone that the course was designed for him and that everyone else would be fighting for second place. Johnson's mouth might not have had such an impact had the men's downhill not been delayed for a week because of snowstorms and high winds on Mount Bjela?nica. The newsless newsmen were desperate for something—anything—to write for their journals or say and show on the tube, and Johnson's audacious boasting fit the bill. Johnson's talk wasn't composed entirely of hot air: The downhill course on Bjela?nica was unusually flat, and Johnson is what's known as a glider, a skier who can make his skis flow with uncommon speed over not very steep terrain. And so it was that his windy prediction turned out to be absolutely right.
After he won, someone at a mass press conference predictably asked Johnson what the medal meant to him. Instead of offering mewling cliches about spiritual joy and patriotic glory, he chuckled slyly and said, "Millions, we're talking millions." This, of course, was duly incorporated into Billy D's bad-boy brand of folk hero, along with his early life as a school truant and two-bit juvenile car thief. The myth was born.
But the quadrennium has turned, another Olympics is only eight weeks away, and Johnson, now a not-so-young upstart, will be an object of global curiosity once again. Unfortunately, that curiosity may have the ghoulish quality of gawkers gathered at the scene of an accident. It has been a long, uneven four years for Johnson, with a lot less money than he had expected and a lot more pain.
After Sarajevo, Billy D singed the feathers of the ski racing establishment again by winning two more 1984 World Cup downhills—one at Aspen, the other at Whistler Mountain in Canada. In the process he showed a new ability to perform good technical turns, and even his zillions of detractors had to admit that those victories made Johnson a true downhiller.
But that was the end of that. He has finished in the top 10 five times since then, but hasn't won a race since 1984. Why? Mainly because he has never again come close to being in the peak physical condition of his Olympic year. He is contrite about what happened, and there are no sounds of bluster or braggadocio when he discusses his post- Sarajevo self. In Val d'Is�re he said, "If I had to do it over, I wouldn't have spent the summer of 1984 on the champagne circuit. It was chaos. I never knew where I was. Someone would call my mom, someone would call my dad, someone would call my semi-agent. They'd all book me in somewhere, and I'd go and play celebrity. I thought it was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime chance—all the fame and fortune. Actually it wasn't that great. In retrospect I think that if I'd quit racing completely in '84, I could've made maybe $2 million. As it was, I didn't really commit myself to racing, either. My plan was to wait for this season—you know, sort of hang out until the next Olympics and try not to get hurt, and then go in and do it all over again. Maybe it would have worked, but then I went and blew the not-getting-hurt part. Now I've got to come back a long way."
The "not-getting-hurt part" went by the boards during a training run before last year's World Cup race at Val Gardena. It happened on a squirrelly, high-speed section of the course known as the Camel Bumps, where there are at least three different ways to ski a good racing line. "As I came in above the Bumps, there were a lot of spectators waving their arms, which was confusing," says Johnson. "I was on a really fast pair of skis, moving faster than I was prepared for, and suddenly my mind went blank. I spaced for a split second, and I just could not remember which line I'd decided to take. I stood up a little, hesitated, and that was it."
He was going about 60 mph when he took the tumble. He slid on his side at high speed for a while and then a ski edge caught, twisting his leg at the same instant he was thrown into the air. When he came to a stop, he had a fractured right shoulder and a horribly injured left knee.