Tom Ross: A fall from Mount Olympus
Memories of Bill Johnson come flooding back
February 13, 2010
The last time Jace Romick saw Bill Johnson, his old mate from the U.S. Ski Team, Johnson suggested to Romick's wife that she run away with him.
It was January 2000, and the former teammates on the U.S. downhill team reunited at a celebrity race during the national championships in Jackson, Wyo. Johnson was attempting an unlikely comeback a decade after his retirement from the Alpine World Cup circuit.
"He walked up to Kim and said, 'You should leave that guy and come with me. I'm going to win a gold medal at the Olympics in 2002," Romick said.
It was classic gamesmanship by Johnson, the U.S. downhill racer who captivated America's imagination in 1984 by daring to intimidate the powerful Austrian team on his way to winning a gold medal in Sarajevo, in what was then Yugoslavia. Romick was unfazed by Johnson's remarks to his spouse — he'd come to expect that behavior.
"He was basically living out of a pickup truck at that time and driving around with his gold medal under the seat," Romick said. "He'd lost his wife, and he was broke."
Today, Romick is searching for a way to help his old teammate.
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Retired Olympic downhill racers don't make successful comebacks at age 40 — even if they have a gold medal stashed in their truck. A year later, in 2001, Johnson suffered a severe head injury in an awkward fall on a downhill course in Montana. He emerged from a coma, but his life never has been the same.
Johnson is a forlorn figure today, on the eve of the 2010 Winter Olympics. He lives in a little mobile home in the tiny Oregon town of Zig Zag on the flanks of Mount Hood. According to news reports, he struggles with memory loss and walks in a stooped posture.
Memories of Johnson and a stew of conflicting emotions came to Romick on Thursday night while he watched an HBO story about the gold medalist's difficult circumstances.
He felt a touch of sadness, some envy (Romick just missed out on competing in the Olympics himself) and regret that Johnson is living alone on disability benefits.
Romick skied in the Alpine World Championships in 1982 at age 19, placing eighth in the combined downhill. However, while skidding across the finish line on one ski, he blew out his knee and could not continue to the slalom race or the pure downhill.
"It was the best day of my life and the worst day of my life," he recalled. "If the Olympics had been in 1982, I would have been the top American downhiller."
In 1984, the U.S. coaches decided to take just two downhillers to the Olympics instead of the four they were allotted. Johnson, with a fistful of World Cup wins under his belt that season, was on his way to Olympic glory.
Romick's story underscores what a big role fate plays in Olympic fame.
Johnson's story is a cautionary tale of how an Olympic gold medal can bring fame and riches but doesn't guarantee anything for the athlete who wears it around his neck.
"He had everything we wanted," Romick said. "He bragged to us about making seven figures and told us about visiting the Playboy mansion. He had a house in Malibu and a Porsche Carrera. He was on Johnny Carson, and he lost it all."
The brash ski racer rose to the top of his sport in part by intimidating his rivals, both Americans and members of European teams, Romick recalled. He was not unlike a football lineman who attempts to unnerve the guy across the line of scrimmage by spewing trash talk about his opponents' female relatives.
The first time he and Johnson showed up at the starting gate of a Europa Cup race as teenagers, Johnson stole the protective straps off Romick's race skis just to get inside his head.
"Later, he gave me a funny look and laughed, 'Heh, heh, heh,' and I knew it was him. He was like the school bully who knows who to pick on and who not to pick on. He learned that I was an old cowboy and wasn't going to take anything from him, and we came to have mutual respect."
However, Johnson's consistently arrogant behavior throughout the course of many years succeeded in alienating him from most people in the world of skiing.
Phil and Steve Mahre are deservedly remembered as the great American male skiers of that era for their prowess in slalom and giant slalom, Romick said. But it was Johnson who was the first American man to break through in Alpine skiing's speed events.
Now, Romick is urging others to forgive old transgressions to pave the way to assembling enough money to make Johnson's living situation more secure.
"The deal with Bill that comes back to me is when people ask me about my skiing career and they say, 'Oh, you skied with Bill Johnson. Was he as big a jerk as everyone says?'
"In a lot of ways, yes, he was. Bill's a tough character. But to sit here and not do anything for him right now is not right."
Romick invites anyone with a soft spot for an American skiing legend who always has been rough around the edges to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.