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Ray Grass: Don’t try to reopen an already closed door

SHARE Ray Grass: Don’t try to reopen an already closed door

Watching the Olympic downhill this past Sunday brought back a flood of memories from 2002. I covered the alpine events, which started with the downhill.

That was not my first look at a world-class downhill, but this one was special — made so by all of the hype, the excitement in the stands, the fact it was held on a "home" course and the fact this was the Olympics.

Fritz Strobl of Austria, one of the odds-on favorites, won the men's event.

Carole Montillet of France took a weeklong vacation to San Diego to "gather herself together" just before the Olympics and then proved odds-makers wrong by winning the women's downhill.

America's Daron Rahlves was expected to place high but had a poor race and finished 16th. Bode Miller didn't race.

And, at the finish of the women's event, Picabo Street, one of my personal favorites on the world circuit, announced her retirement from racing. Not skiing, just racing.

It was, she said, time. She knew it, accepted it and bowed out with no regrets and with style.

At the time I thought of another downhill racer, Bill Johnson, whose career left a trail of regrets.

A new book out, "Ski To Die," by Jennifer Woodlief, chronicles the life of a skier unable to deal with his success, or people, which led to a sad and tragic attempt to relive his glory days . . . Sarajevo, 1984, the day he made history by becoming the first American to win an Olympic downhill gold.

His post-Olympic dream of fame and fortune started to fizzle shortly after his first press conference. Humility and his rush for cash were but two of his shortcomings.

For most of the 1990s, he made a meager living accepting small fees for appearing at celebrity races.

Broke, depressed, bored, unhappy and trying desperately to hold on to that single thread of respectability he had, his medal, he announced his return to ski racing at age 40.

In a qualifying event in 2001 at Snowbasin, Johnson went against skiers that in many cases were not even born when he won his medal. The outcome was as certainas daylight. He failed, miserably.

In training runs, he finished 27th and 25th. In his third, he fell and broke a ski. He looked off balance and uneasy on his skis right from the start, a sure signs of impending disaster in a downhill. His time at the first interval just before his fall was the slowest of the day. He left without racing.

I saw him standing by some bleachers, well away from the other racers. Asked about his fall, he blamed the course, his skis and poor snow conditions.

I asked if he was getting any outside financial help for his comeback and he said no. Just to make this race, he said, he had to sell his gold-medal skis to his mother for $4,000. He was going to put them up for sale on eBay before his mom did.

Even his appearance at this event was demeaning. While younger racers were in the latest skintight racing suits and colorful full-face helmets, Johnson wore an old suit and a black open-face helmet that was chipped and faded.

He did not mix with the other racers and, as one racer explained, ignored them when they did try to speak with him.

A month later, Johnson would crash on a downhill run in Whitefish, Mont., and nearly died. A week after the accident he was comatose and in critical condition and needed help from a ventilator to breathe.

He will likely never fully recover, not even to the level he was at Snowbasin.

If there is a lesson here, it is that when it's time to close the door, don't try to reopen it and expect to find that time has stood still.

EMAIL: grass@desnews.com