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"Ski To Die (The Bill Johnson Story)"

Skiing was Bill Johnson's glorious stage. In 1984 at Sarajevo, he became the first American to win a gold medal in the downhill. A little earlier that winter, he'd become the first U.S. skier to win a World Cup downhill.

But skiing also nearly killed Johnson when he tried, at age 40, to recapture the celebrity he'd enjoyed in his '20's. He was still a terrific competitor in 2001. According to a lot of the people to whom Jennifer Woodlief spoke for Ski To Die: The Bill Johnson Story, he was also delusional. And after the horrific accident that not only ended Johnson's career as a skier but permanently damaged his brain, it was easy to conclude that the comeback attempt had been foolhardy. But there have been no alternative to it. The refrain in Ski To Die has it that after winning the Olympic medal, Bill Johnson "spent the rest of his life not knowing what to do next."

Though Johnson could be charming, the character Woodlief gives us is almost always selfish, self-indulgent, and insufferable. As Woodlief explains, Johnson's parents might be charitably characterized as irresponsible, but lots of people with irresponsible or even absentee parents manage to grow up. Bill Johnson never did, and the accident that hammered his brain into blinky undependability means he never will.

Ski To Die is compelling. So is watching a traffic accident develop, and the comparison is not entirely without merit.

This program aired on December 10, 2005. The audio for this program is not available.

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