A catastrophic crash in 2001 turned alpine skier Bill Johnson from an Olympic champion into a man forever changed by brain damage, suffering in his final moments at a nursing home.
Johnson died on Friday afternoon in an Oregon nursing home at age 55. In his final years, he’d suffered a number of strokes, couldn’t speak or open his left eye, and only communicated by grunting and nodding, according to an Oregonian reporter who visited him two years ago.
Bill’s mother, DB Johnson-Cooper was with him until the end. The night before his passing, she described the difficulty Johnson had suffered in the final days of his life.
“He suffered the worst kind of pain for the past three weeks. Then he could no longer swallow, which prevented him from being able to have nourishment.”
— Idaho Statesman (@IdahoStatesman) January 22, 2016
Johnson’s story is about as tragic as it gets, but according to John Canzano — the local reporter who wrote a tribute to the skier after his death — Bill remained a fierce fighter and competitor even as his health failed. He lived by himself for years in a trailer that looked out on Mt. Hood, tried hard to perform basic tasks, and relished in visitors, cards from fans, and reconnecting with his sons.
“His body may have been broken, his brain changed, but Johnson was always the same stubborn warrior inside.”
Bill Johnson made history when, at the 1984 Olympic games in Sarajevo, he won a gold medal in downhill skiing at only 23-years-old, according to USA Today. He was the first American to do that, ending Europe’s 36-year streak in the sport, The Washington Post reported. Only one other American skier, Tommy Moe, has ever done the same, back in 1994.
When the Olympics were over, Bill came home and won the World Cup in both Aspen, Colo. and Whistler, British Columbia before retiring in 1990. Both injuries and a poor attitude — which culminated in a fight with U.S. team assistant before his second winter games — led to his retirement. Around the same time, his wife Gina divorced him and took their sons to California.
By 2001, at age 40, Bill wanted Gina back. Johnson thought the only way to do that was to win another Olympics.
“I was broke,” he said in a past interview. “If I had money and a gold medal again, I think she would have loved me and come back.”
Bill’s plan was to make a comeback at the 2002 Salt Lake City games, but while he was training in 2001 at The Big Mountain in Montana, he had a devastating crash that ended his hopes for a return to the sport and destroyed his body.
— Fox News (@FoxNews) January 22, 2016
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) January 22, 2016
Johnson suffered traumatic brain injury and was never the same again. According to The Post, Outside magazine, described the horrific accident.
“He caught an edge, his legs went spread-eagle, and his body flew sideways through the mesh fence marking the course. His helmeted head smacked the snow, hard; his brain rotated inside his skull, and tissue tore and bled. Within minutes he was in a coma…”
Johnson had almost no brain activity.
“He was unconscious for more than three weeks, and when he came to it was like his brain, damaged by countless small tissue tears, was a computer whose wiring had frayed. He couldn’t remember anything from the previous six years. He had to learn the most basic human activities—walking, speaking, brushing his teeth—all over again. He had the emotional outlook of a child, and when he tried to talk, the phrases often floated loose in his mind.”
Afterwards, Bill struggled with numerous health problems, ending with his stay in the nursing home. It was there Johnson finally reconnected with his sons. All three men got matching tattoos near their hearts: Olympic rings.
In the years after his traumatic brain injury, Johnson, who could never remember the accident that stole his health, often had dreams about being on skis and going fast.
“I never even thought about the risks,” Bill said once. “You can’t if you want to be great.”
[Photo By Steve Powell/Getty Images]