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Former ski racer leaves hospital

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: FILE PHOTO - Former U.S. downhill ski racer Bill Johnson, shown here working out at a Gresham gym in 2001, had himself removed from life-support measures earlier this week and has returned to his home.In the prime of his racing career Bill Johnson was known as a daredevil on the ski slopes, tucking his body in tight and sliding down mountains in a blur. Now, 30 years later, Johnson simply wants to enjoy a leisurely meal at his favorite restaurant.

Johnson, the 1984 Olympic downhill gold medalist, was brought to the Mt. Hood Medical Center on June 29 to treat a series of infections. After a 2 1/2-week stay, he chose to go off life support measures earlier this week and by Wednesday afternoon the 53-year-old had returned to his home at Gresham’s Regency Nursing and Rehabilitation facility.

“He was tired of everybody poking and prodding at him,” his mother D.B. Johnson-Cooper said. “He’s doing really well — he’s eating better than I’ve seen in a long time.”

After a couple weeks on a soft diet of blended foods, Johnson enjoyed a bean soup and slices of orange for lunch Thursday and also escaping his room for a smoke outside. He still looks forward to a trip to the Red Lobster for some seafood or perhaps to the Shari’s in Troutdale to see some friendly faces.

“He’s all cleaned up and a whole lot happier today,” Johnson-Cooper said. “He’s talking with an old friend right now, grinning side to side and having a good time.”

Denying medications, with the exception of pain relievers, Johnson is relying on rest to allow his body to recover.

“I don’t know the extent of his medical condition,” friend and former training partner John Creel said. “But that sounds like Billy — ‘leave me alone and let me do my thing.’ He seems to recover from a lot of different things. It’s his choice, and he’s taking responsibility for his actions.”

Johnson-Cooper is spending much of her time bedside with her son, making sure his wishes are met and he is getting the rest his body requires. That means much time spent in front of the television. Billy is a fan of game shows and also will watch his share of golf and baseball.

“I wish he’d just pop right back, but it’s going to be slow,” Johnson-Cooper said. “He’s working on it — my role is to be here and help.”

Medical tests were unable to uncover the source of the infections, Johnson-Cooper said.

Bill Johnson discovered skiing while a student at Sandy High where he found himself in trouble for breaking into cars. The judge gave him two options. Serve a 6-month jail sentence or enroll at the Mission Ridge Ski Academy in Washington. The 17-year-old hit the slopes and discovered a hidden talent.

He spent four seasons on the World Cup tour, ranking in the top 30 each season. But 1984 was his breakout year, becoming the first American downhill skier to win a Cup race at Wengen, Switzerland. A month later, he made good on his own guarantee by taking the gold medal at the Sarajevo Olympics. He came down the mountain in 1:45.59, edging Peter Muller of Switzerland by .27 of a second. He landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week.

“I don’t consider myself an athlete — I consider myself a ski racer,” Bill Johnson said in an interview before the 1984 Games.

He won two more tour races that season and finished 1984 ranked third in the downhill points list.

After more than a decade away from competitive racing, Johnson attempted a comeback at the age of 40 in a quest to make the 2002 Olympic team in Salt Lake. During his comeback he had the tattoo “Ski to Die” inked into his arm — a testament to his aggressive style on the slopes.

In March of 2001 he was speeding down Big Mountain, Mont., on a training run. He entered a series of tight turns, known as The Corkscrew, when his skis parted and he crashed through a pair of retaining fences. It is estimated he was traveling near 60 miles per hour. The crash left him in a coma for three weeks and caused brain damage, which affects his memory and ability to speak. Johnson also has suffered a series of strokes in recent years.



“Every once in awhile, he’ll ask to get the computer out and look at some videos or photos of his races — he likes remembering that,” Johnson-Cooper said.



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