Behind the Gold: Remembering a hero
April 12, 2016
Standing at the top of Aztec, you see the town of Aspen below — an awe-inspiring sight. Close your eyes, and you can visualize Olympic champion Bill Johnson charging off Ruthie's Run at nearly 70 mph, laying down the edge of his right ski only feet from the safety fence — hands in front of his face in an aerodynamic tuck — arcing across the face of Aztec, then pointing his Atomics down into the fall line heading for Spring Pitch.
On Saturday, hundreds of Bill Johnson's family, friends and fans gathered at the start atop Ruthie's to ski down the course many say galvanized his position as a truly great downhill ski racer when he won there March 4, 1984.
Johnson had claimed the Lauberhorn in Wengen, Switzerland, that January and was coming off wins in the Olympic downhill at Sarajevo and U.S. Championships in Copper Mountain. Thousands lined the course in Aspen to see the Olympic champion in a race delayed by a day with more than a foot of new snow.
"Wait until he gets to Aspen," said the naysayers, convinced Johnson was simply a lucky glider. The world knew Johnson for his finish-line bravado. They didn't know the brilliant athlete who had carefully prepared for that day in Aspen.
"He was calm and confident at the start," said Atomic serviceman Blake Lewis.
"When we woke up that morning, he told me to find a place for the victory party," laughed former roommate Barry Thys.
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While the Olympic downhill in Sarajevo favored gliders, Aspen's downhill was known for its technical turns. It starts with undulating terrain across the top flats on Ruthie's, where gliding skills and well-prepared skis are vital. But then, it drops precipitously down Aztec into Spring Pitch and onto Strawpile, where it's all in the hands of the pilot.
Johnson ran 19th that day — outside of top-15 first seed. In the finish, Austrians Helmut Hoeflehner and Anton Steiner shared the lead at one minute, 49.85 seconds. The Olympic champion clicked into his Tyrolia bindings, then held each ski up for a final wipe by Lewis. The team's physical therapist, Topper Hagerman, gave him a quick rub down to warm up his thighs. The clock beeped down, and Johnson was on course.
He was quick to get into his tuck, looking for every hundredth of a second down the rolls of Ruthie's Run. As he flew by the interval time at the top of Aztec, he was .07 behind the leaders. The gliding was finished. Now, it was time to turn on the technical skills.
Johnson knifed through Aztec carrying top speed into the high banks of the Airplane Turn through Spring Pitch. He was gaining time in the very section of the course his adversaries expected him to fail. Sweeping off Summer Road and down into Strawpile, Norway Island and the finish area were coming into sight.
It was all a blur to Johnson as the Aspen fans erupted. This was what they had come to see — bad boy Billy Johnson had beaten the Austrians at their own game by a full quarter second on one of the White Circus' toughest race courses.
The ever-gracious Austrian, Steiner was one of the first to congratulate him.
"It's good for all ski racers to have Americans win," he said. "It makes it more interesting when someone other than the Swiss or Austrians are winning."
As skiers gathered at a makeshift finish line marked by American and U.S. Ski Team flags Saturday, menacing storm clouds darkened the Aspen sky. Almost as if on cue, a lightning bolt and thunderclap rang out.
Once again, Bill Johnson got the last laugh.
While friends shared war stories about the glory year of 1984, Johnson's sons, Nick and Tyler, understood for the first time what a hero their father had been to a nation of skiers. Love him or not, they saw the respect and admiration his teammates shared for the man they called their dad, a man who would play cribbage with them hours on end, but who they never knew as a ski racer.
"I had great years with my dad," said Tyler. "He really raised me and my brother as best he could. We all make choices. His choices have led me to becoming a better man. Seeing everybody today and learning how my dad was truly loved is really awesome."
"He was one of my heroes and always will be," said Thys.
Raising a toast to his father: "As my dad used to say, cheers to the next drink, everyone. Second place is open."
Behind the Gold is a weekly column written by Tom Kelly, vice president of communications for the United States Ski and Snowboard Association.
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