Olympic downhill champion produces encore

At first the Europeans refused to take Bill Johnson seriously, making fun of his rough-cut, Western manner and playing down his successes on the slopes. That was in January, when he became the first American to win a World Cup downhill.

Then the Europeans called Johnson a glider, a sort of backhanded compliment which implied that a) he can't turn, and, b) he was something of fluke. That was in February, after Johnson won the Olympic downhill in dramatic fashion, having called his shot.

Now the Europeans are calling Johnson one of the world's best downhillers. This is in March, after Johnson won America's World Cup downhill in Aspen, Colo.

No less a European than Serge Lang, founder of the World Cup and the major force in ski journalism since 1948, calls Johnson ''a fantastic guy. The best we've had in 20 years. The guy's like Muhammad Ali, the only guy in the history of skiing who said, 'I will win this Olympics,' and he did it.''

Of course, Lang is a journalist, and journalists love good copy. Johnson is very, very good copy.

Throughout his career he's stirred things up, receiving mixed reviews from authorities, coaches, fellow racers, and now journalists, who've delighted in reporting his brush with the law at age 17, when he stole a car by towing it away.

Theo Nadig, the Swiss-born US downhill coach, says, ''He went through tough times and there were a lot of people against him that didn't understand him. I was on that side too, at the beginning.''

''I think he's a really neat, very honest, very open person. I think everybody has the right to be respected,'' Nadig continued, adding, ''I had to learn that.''

Johnson didn't command much respect in 1982, when he showed up at a training camp out of shape. He was cut from the US Europa Cup team, the circuit just a step below the World Cup. He wrote a letter to the coaches of the US ski team, saying, ''I'm coming back, and I'll be the best American downhiller ever.'' And then Johnson went to work.

''The first year I showed up with the Americans on the Europa Cup, we were usually 10 seconds out and they (the Europeans) were laughing at me,'' Nadig says. Two years later, Johnson was back on the team and won three of the four Europa Cup races.

Suddenly the laughter stopped.

That was last year. This year, the snickers started again when Johnson finished 26th, 42nd, 20th, and 23rd in the year's first four downhills.

And then it happened. In Wengen, Switzerland, Johnson started 21st, and was having a good run in flat light when he hit a series of treacherous dips at 70 mph. Suddenly he looked like he'd gone out of control.One ski went left, the other right, and spectators and TV viewers hid their eyes.

Somehow Johnson brought his skis back together, but his boots collided, kicking one ski out from under him. He shot off course, headed for the fence, one boot and ski chest high. He brought the ski down, turned, and went right back into his tuck, looking for more speed. He nailed the last two turns and won the race.

Then came the difficult part. Franz Klammer, the 30-year-old legendary downhiller, said that snowy conditions made it easier for a skier like Johnson to win the race. Johnson took offense, and said he wasn't too impressed with the 25-time World Cup downhill winner.

The word race was on. Johnson astounded the skiing world with his brash predictions after winning two training runs at Sarajevo. ''The race,'' he said, ''is for second place.'' The Europeans had never heard such things. Journalists , starved for ski stories during the snowbound first week, devoured the bold predictions.

Johnson won the race, thus becoming a latter-day Babe Ruth, pointing his ski pole down the course, calling his shot. Klammer finished a distant 10th, but then, it wasn't his kind of course. Where Klammer is the Gene Kelly of downhillers, performing his amazingly athletic moves best on steep, icy courses, Johnson is a Fred Astaire if ever there was one, flowing down his dream course at Sarajevo with the most fluid of all turns, the lightest of all landings after jumps.

And then there's the tuck. Downhill afficionados love Johnson's tuck, whether he's skiing the flats, turning, or in the air.

The first half of the Aspen course was well suited to Johnson's style, but the bottom half appeared to favor the Austrians, two of whom tied for the early lead.

When Bill broke from the starting gate, people expected him to pull out to a big lead on the top, flat part of the course. But to the horror of the Americans in earshot of his intermediate time, he was in fifth place after the flats.

Johnson, however, was obviously determined to show the Europeans and the world that he can dance down the steep, tight turns and hold his tuck while doing it.And so, he danced his way to another victory. Just call him Fred Astaire.

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