Ski mishap leaves Olympic medalist in coma

— Former U.S. Ski Team Member Craig Thrasher knows firsthand the thrill of speeding down a mountain at break-neck speeds.

He also realizes the danger.

That's why he wasn't totally surprised to hear that his former teammate Bill Johnson had been seriously injured after crashing in an FIS downhill event at the Big Mountain Resort in Montana last week. Johnson, who was pursuing a comeback at age 40, crashed through a protective fence and slammed into the ground ar nearly 45 mph. The force of the impact caused severe head trauma. Johnson was flown by helicopter to the Kalispell Regional Medical Center where he underwent four hours of surgery to remove blood from his brain and lungs. He remains in a coma.

"It's the type of thing you have to expect in ski racing," Thrasher said. "But Bill is a fighter and I have every faith that he will pull through this."

Thrasher was on the the U.S. team with Johnson in 1986. Thrasher was just moving up the ranks of the U.S. team and Johnson was on his way down.

Thrasher, who spent seven years on the team before retiring in 1998, recalls Johnson as a jovial guy who always had a smile on his face when he wasn't on the course. But when he was skiing, Thrasher said Johnson was always very serious.

"He was a very competitive and very intense skier," Thrasher said.

Thrasher said Johnson's influence was felt throughout the entire U.S. Ski Team not only by his accomplishments on the slope, but by the way he carried himself.

"He showed us that we could ski fast and that we could win, "Thrasher said. "He inspired us to reach for that next level."

Johnson was the first American skier to win an Olympic Gold Medal in the downhill during the 1984 Games in Sarajevo.

Before the games he boasted that everybody else was racing for second place. Then he proved it by topping Swiss skier Peter Mueller and Austrian Franz Klammer in the Olympic downhill.

But he may have been best know for winning a World Cup event in Wengen, Switzerland, just weeks before the Olympics. Johnson survived a near fall midway through the renowned Lauberhorn race and went on to win it.

He retired in 1989 but had recently mounted a comeback attempt and was hoping to race in the 2002 Olympic Games in Utah.

U.S. Ski Team spokesman Tom Kelley said that Johnson was a very capable downhiller who had every right and ability to be on the course in Montana.

"He is in extremely critical condition, but there is a feeling of optimism that he will pull through," Kelly said earlier in the week.

Thrasher said there isn't a good crash in downhill skiing, but at first glance he was startled to hear that Johnson had been critically injured in the fall.

"It didn't look that bad," Thrasher said. "But it's hard to tell in skiing."

thrasher said he never really had that bad of crashes in his career, despite the fact he blew out both of his knees on more than one occasion.

"I learned how to fall at a pretty early age," Thrasher said. "That's something that you learn in downhill skiing. I don't know, but I have to wonder if Bill forgot how to fall."

Thrasher, who has a family in Steamboat Springs, said he has been too busy to visit Johnson in the hospital. But his thoughts and prayers are with him.

"I hope he pulls through," Thrasher said. "If anyone can, it would be him."

Doctors have been inspired by Johnson's improvements over the last few days. It was reported that the former Olympian was showing optimistic signs.

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