On Tuesday night, after watching Kansas sweep Baylor, I found myself tuning into the E:60 documentary “Downhill: The Bill Johnson Story.” As a lifelong skier, I was immediately seduced by the snowy Alps and wintry scenes in the opening montage. I wondered, “Could this be a motivational and uplifting sports story? Awesome! There’s nothing else on…so count me in.”
It’s 1984, and the cocky 23-year-old Bill Johnson heads to the World Cup in Wengen, Switzerland. His goal is clear: he wants to secure a spot on the United States’ Ski Team and compete in the Sarajevo Winter Olympic Games. At this time, the men’s downhill is considered a European sport. He thinks, “No American had ever stood on the podium? Challenge accepted.” The stage was set for a classic USA versus the world competition that we, as Americans, love. Johnson walks around Wengen like he owns the place. He’s talking smack, ruffling European feathers, and making zero apologies. The favorite, an Austrian named Franz Klammer, even calls Bill Johnson a “nose picker.” BRB, dying. On January 15, 1984, Bill leaves European mouths agape when he backs it all up and took first place in the men’s downhill at Wengen. Power move.
Fast-forward a month later, to Sarajevo and the 1984 Winter Olympic Games. Bill Johnson flies down the course at about 70 mph and beats Peter Müller (the reigning downhill stud) of Switzerland by 0.27 seconds. His time of 1:45.59 secures him the gold. The world is shocked, and for the first time in men’s downhill Winter Olympic history, “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays. In that moment, everything changes for Bill Johnson, just not maybe the way he thinks it will.
Johnson receives a hero’s welcome when he returns to the Land of the Free. Hugh Hefner gives him keys to the Playboy Clubs–everything included, free of charge. Reagan praises him, saying, “[Bill Johnson] smoked em’.” Not surprisingly, things go to Bill’s head. He thinks his gold medal will mean millions, but his millions never come.
Over the course of the next 18 years, Bill suffers from injuries, personal tragedy, bankruptcy, and divorce. In 2001, Bill Johnson decides he’s going to win back his family by making a downhill comeback. “Yes! I love a great comeback story,” I think to myself. At the time of his comeback, Johnson’s about 20 years older than his fellow competitors. In preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Johnson heads to the US Alpine Championship in Whitefish, Mont. His new “Ski to Die” tattoo proves to be almost prophetic. During a training run, Johnson crashes through two guard fences and sustains a traumatic brain injury. His condition is critical; he is in a coma for three weeks. The mountain giveth, and the mountain taketh away.
At this point in the documentary, I pulled what I assume to be the ultimate Taylor Swift. I was in my bed drinking wine and sobbing into my slice of gluten-free pizza. This was no “Survive and Advance”. This was not the bittersweet, but ultimately beautiful and inspiring, story of Jim Valvano and the 1982-83 North Carolina State Wolfpack. This was actually really sad. WTF, ESPN?
I realize life often lacks a happy ending. I realize that it is irrational to want to marry one of this man’s sons so we can go visit his father, who lives in an assisted living facility after suffering from a series of strokes. I REALIZE THIS. I am a girl and an optimist. I need a happily ever after, or at least some kind of closure. I don’t think I’m getting the former, but here is what I took away from this story.
- Live your life with authenticity.
- Take responsibility for your mistakes.
- Hold on to those you love.
- Appreciate the gravity of your decisions.
- Time is your true enemy.
- Maybe I should be wearing a helmet when I ski?
- Don’t have regrets.
The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games mark the 30th anniversary of Bill Johnson’s gold medal. Johnson single-handedly changed men’s downhill history. He paved the way for other great American skiers like Tommy Moe, Bode Miller, and Ted Ligety. If nothing more, Johnson is a man who sacrificed everything for the sport. As you don your United States Drinking Team shirts with pride over the course of the games, raise a glass in honor of Bill Johnson. He is an American, an Olympian, and a maverick.