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BILL JOHNSON : Olympic Flame Is Still Burning for Injured Skier

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Associated Press

Downhill skier Bill Johnson, a flop since his Olympic gold medal-winning season of 1984, has begun the long, painful rehabilitation process following multiple surgeries--with an eye toward Calgary in 1988.

“I will be back, there’s no doubt about it,” Johnson said Thursday with characteristic brashness. “And I will win again. That’s a definite.”

Johnson had hoped to use the current World Cup season as an opportunity to regain confidence and move into the top seed of skiers in advance of next year’s Winter Olympics.

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Those goals, however, came undone Dec. 12 at Val Gardena, Italy, where Johnson took a terrible fall during a training run. He tore ligaments in his left knee, requiring major reconstructive surgery by Dr. Richard Steadman, the U.S. Ski Team surgeon.

Steadman called the injury “career-threatening.”

Less than a month later, he underwent back surgery to remove two disks which were protruding into his spinal canal--a condition that had bothered him throughout the 1985-86 season, when he hired a masseuse to accompany him on the World Cup circuit.

Rehabilitation began the day after both operations.

“With the techniques they have now, doctors don’t like you sitting around and tightening up,” said Johnson. “They want you getting after it, moving again.

“The rehabilitation is coming along really well. Dr. Steadman says I might be skiing again in June. I say I’ll be skiing in May.”

Johnson was the toast of amateur skiing in 1984, when he won the Olympic downhill at Sarajevo as well as three World Cup downhills. Two lean seasons followed, in which he finished no higher than seventh in any race. He also was stalked by controversy; he fought with Ski Team officials, at one time threatening to quit the team and ski for Sweden.

But he approached the 1986-87 season with new resolve.

“I felt I was starting to ski really well this season,” he says. “It’s unfortunate I didn’t finish that run at Val Gardena. I was really moving. I wanted to get my confidence back, and I pushed it a little too hard. I was going too fast too early in the season, and I fell. I’ve learned a lesson. I don’t think I’ll fall any more.”

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Johnson, criticized for his lax training habits in previous off-seasons, said he now has “plenty of time to get in shape. I have a year to get ready for the next Olympics, and there are 10 months before the first World Cup races.”

He acknowledges that, unlike most of his colleagues, he puts more emphasis on the Olympics than on World Cup races.

“My goal is to peak at the Olympics,” he said. “To get anywhere in skiing in the United States, you have to do well in the Olympics. People don’t know what the World Cup is.

“I’ve just been kind of hanging out the last few years, just relaxing, waiting for the next Olympics. This season was supposed to be a build-up year for me. I was training harder and I wanted to get back in the top group.”

Competing in the top group of 15 skiers is generally considered an advantage because of optimum snow conditions. Johnson notes, however, that in his superb ’84 season, he was relegated to the second group, usually skiing from 18th to 20th.

He hasn’t seen the downhill course at Calgary and therefore can’t accurately predict how he’ll do on it. But that probably won’t prevent him from touting himself when the time times -- as he did at Sarajevo, promising he would win and then delivering.

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“I’ll probably do the same thing I did in ’84. I’ll pop off and get myself in a big rut, and then I’ll have to win.”

Johnson, 26, who now lives in Troutdale, Ore., was in Denver on Thursday to help promote the U.S. Alpine Ski Championships, which begin Feb. 18-19 at Crested Butte. The following three days the competition will be staged at Copper Mountain.

He has fond memories of Crested Butte.

“That’s where I made my move, where I began my rise,” he said. “I won Nor-Am races there in 1982 and 1983.”

Ever controversial, Johnson said he is pulling for someone to beat teammate Doug Lewis in the downhill race at the nationals.

“I don’t want Doug Lewis winning two nationals in a row,” said Johnson. “I’m the only one who does that.”

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