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Johnson Returns to Scene of Crash

News
posted: 01/01/2000

Whitefish, Mont. March 21, 2002 (AP by Rob Gloster)--Bill Johnson wants a chance to celebrate his survival and begin remembering his past.

So the former Olympic champion will ski Friday at the spot where a crash exactly one year ago left him near death and with brain injuries that might never heal.

``I don't even know where I'm going. I have forgotten everything about that accident. It's in Montana, and I really don't remember skiing in Montana,'' said Johnson, whose speech is still slurred. ``But it's exciting to understand those people that helped me out, and what they went through to get me able again.''

The doctors and others who saved Johnson's life are eager to see the remarkable recovery of the former downhill racer, who was semi-comatose and barely able to follow simple commands when they last saw him.

This weekend the 41-year-old Johnson will meet the neurosurgeon who removed a postcard-sized piece of his skull to remove a huge blood clot from his brain. And the doctor who spent 90 minutes carefully stitching the pieces of Johnson's tongue back together.

And he will be reunited with the ski patrol member who radioed for help when he reached the bloodied Johnson lying in the snow.

``We're all looking forward to seeing him,'' said Dr. Wilson Higgs, who repaired the worst tongue injury he had ever seen. ``We know he doesn't remember us, but we'd like to see the progress he's made.''

Johnson crashed on March 22, 2001, during a preliminary race at the U.S. Alpine Championships in Whitefish, Mont. He was hoping to reclaim a spot on the national team, 17 years after brashly predicting victory at the 1984 Sarajevo Games and then becoming the first U.S. man to win an Olympic downhill title.

The brain injury wiped out an entire decade of memory. Johnson can recall little from the 1990s, a time when his youngest son died and his wife divorced him. His mom, DB Johnson, hopes this weekend will spark some memories of his life before the crash.

``If it can open any doors at all, that's what I hope will happen,'' she said. ``He seems to be able to pull a few things out of his hat within the area of 1990 to 1995, but it's sporadic and it's not real clear.''

Dr. Rob Hollis, the Kalispell Regional Medical Center neurosurgeon who removed a 4-inch-by-7-inch piece of bone to treat Johnson's swollen brain, said such recall is unlikely _ but not impossible.

``My guess is that some of his more distant memories may come back. I think the period after the accident, up to several months, he'll never remember that. He may get an occasional glimpse of something,'' Hollis said. ``Coming back to where he had his accident may trigger some pre-existing memories.''

Johnson had not raced in 11 years when he began his comeback attempt last season. He believed that becoming a champion again would bring back his wife and two surviving sons. ``Ski to Die'' was tattooed on his right biceps.

He was racing in a downhill at Big Mountain Resort when he lost balance during a series of sharp turns and plunged onto the icy snow. His body ripped through two safety fences.

``This was as bad as anybody I had ever seen that was still alive,'' said ski patrol member Chris Burke, who was the first to reach Johnson. ``I've never had a wreck like that on the mountain.''

Burke and some friends had been out for beers with Johnson a couple of nights before the accident. Now he stood over the nearly lifeless body.

``He was on his back. Blood was coming out of his mouth,'' Burke said. ``I thought, `He's a goner, he's a vegetable.'''

Johnson was little more than that for weeks. Doctors kept him in a coma until the brain swelling subsided, but then he got pneumonia. He was in a coma for three weeks, semi-comatose for six more.

``We were thinking it might be better if he didn't make it,'' said Jimmy Cooper, Johnson's stepfather. ``What were the options? That he die, be a vegetable, be a quadriplegic, or get better. Everything just worked out right.''

Johnson underwent months of rehab, slowly regaining motor skills and the ability to do complex tasks. He underwent intensive physical and mental therapy at facilities in Oregon and California.

``I have to live at home with my mom,'' he said. ``What happened to me was really incredible.''

He has stopped formal rehab, saying the therapists were too easy on him. Instead, he bikes and returned to skis in late November.

Johnson was a torchbearer at the Salt Lake City Olympics and proudly proclaims he has skied 17 times this year, including a couple of slalom runs last weekend in a celebrity race during the U.S. Alpine Championships at Squaw Valley.

Those were his first competitive races since the crash, and he skied gingerly. His speech remains slurred and there's still weakness on the right side of his body. But he skied smoothly, and with good form.

Those who skied alongside Johnson in the celebrity race say he seems content.

``I don't think he was that happy before the accident,'' said Bode Miller, a double silver medalist at the Salt Lake City Games, ``and now he seems really happy.''

Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press

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