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The fall after gold

Megan Mowbray
Special to The Vail TrailJennifer Woodlief, author of "Ski to Die" will be in Vail on Wednesday, Feb. 15 for a spot on TV8. She will also hold a book signing from 12 - 1 p.m. at the Denver Press Club on Tuesday, Feb. 14.
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Legends aren’t just made, and un-made everyday. Although comeback stories aren’t unheard of in these times of incredible physical therapy, training, and new equipment, the question remains: is newer always better? In the case of legendary bad-boy and Olympic skier Bill Johnson, new equipment almost killed him. Jennifer Woodlief, author of “Ski to Die, the Bill Johnson Story,” shares the story of the 1984 Olympic gold medal winner rise to become the first American to win any downhill race to his near-fatal fall on a course a few years later and the turmoil he endured, and continues to endure, since.

There are only a few highlights stirred into the mix of Johnson’s rough and tough times in this biography. “I wanted to write this book because I felt like the extremes of Bill’s life with the levels of distress and despair are unparalleled,” Woodlief said. Giving glimpses into Johnson’s childhood and family background, Woodlief gives the reader more than a few ideas as to why the skier rose to the top, and fell so hard with an out-of-control attitude.

The description and images of Johnson’s life make this book more than a story about a man and his skies. “Ski to Die” impresses the value of life lessons dealing with pain, loss, love, and even a few moments of pure joy, and largely being misunderstood throughout it all. “This guy came from nowhere to achieve his lifelong goal at age 23, and then had to suffer through a freak accident of a death of his child,” Woodlief said. “Those extremes in one lifetime are amazing. I really think that with the way he was not able to handle the aftermath of his victory, that he had no where else to turn and nothing else is the worst tragedy.” Her goal was to cement the idea that Johnson’s story is not so much about skiing, but about a tragic life, and a glimpse of humanity.

Woodlief never passes judgment on the skier, but leaves the reader to decide what kind of person he is from the comments of many of the people who know Johnson well. In fact, most people who know him well, including his family, would say he is a little difficult to get along with, that he wasn’t quite on the same page as most people when it came to tact and things of that nature. But Woodlief does include snippets of e-mails and letters written to Johnson while he was in the hospital, recovering from his accident, that show a side of the skier that most people close to him didn’t often get to see.

Skier greats Bode Miller and Picabo Street are quoted in “Ski to Die,” and actually seem to have a real understanding for Johnson and everything he went through. According to Woodlief, many of Johnson’s old teammates took the “I don’t have anything nice to say so I won’t say anything” route when asked about their encounters with the bad boy, But no matter who says what about this man, undoubtedly he left his mark on not only the sport, but a lot of people’s lives in the process.

Woodlief starts with an innocuous look at one race during Johnson’s attempted comeback. She then begins to fill in details of the skier’s background, unhappy family, troubled childhood and all. “Ski to Die” does not filter from beginning to end; she doesn’t start with the first day Johnson strapped on some boots and skies and progress through his childhood years into high school. Nor does she even present the different ski clubs and races Johnson participated in, in order. Of course, all the bullet points are hit, a small-town boy who loves to ski, who gets in every ski race he can, and the most trouble, as well. Somehow between sleeping in his car and selling his skis to get home, Johnson made it to the Olympics. Despite, or perhaps because of his cock-sure attitude, he wins gold. Johnson then begins a downward spiral after the victory high, including losing his first son, and eventually his whole family through divorce. On a wild ride of a comeback, Johnson takes a tumble during a race (when he chose to ski on unfamiliar shaped skies, rather than his old stand-bys), and only through the miracle of science was his life saved. While the chopped-up style may make a well-known story more enjoyable to readers who know the life of Bill Johnson, those who aren’t as familiar with his story may find the book a bit confusing.

However, because “Ski to Die” is not about skiing or how to win a gold medal, the building suspense of Johnson’s death defying plummet works. There is a well-calculated culmination of interest, apprehension, and unavoidable tragedy that the reader knows is coming from Chapter 1. “I didn’t want to go straight through the book chronologically, because I didn’t want the accident to fall two-thirds of the way through the book, because for what I was telling, it’s pretty much the end of the story,” Woodlief explained.

Besides a terrific read in a train-wreck sort of way, Woodlief also gives a message along with her story of Bill Johnson’s life. “Have a goal beyond the goal, no matter what it is,” she said. “I don’t think this is a ski book, I’m not an athlete, I’m not a skier, but there is a lot more going on here. Bill was the best in the world at something, it just happened to be skiing, and he wasn’t able to handle the aftermath. He didn’t know what came next.”

E-mail comments about this article to editor@vailtrail.com.


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