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Two famous ski racers have near-fatal crashes. Both are told they will never ski again. That’s where the similarities end as two recently published books describe the devastatingly contrasting lives of Austrian superstar Hermann Maier and American gold-medalist Bill Johnson.
Hermann Maier’s autobiography (with Knut Okresek),The Race of My Life (Velo Press), follows the fanatical, inspiring dedication that has enabled Austria’s most popular athlete to recover from catastrophic motorcycle-crash injuries and win ski races again on a leg held together with a titanium rod. Jennifer Woodlief’s Ski To Die, the Bill Johnson Story (Emmis Books) tells the story of the 1984 Olympic downhill gold medalist’s failure at rehabilitating himself physically, spiritually and morally.
Ski To Die is a lively if somewhat repetitive catalogue of the downward spiraling of Johnson’s graceless life, as related by just about everybody who ever knew the guy. He worked his way out of a Crested Butte pr job by insulting guests, worked his way out of the Jeep pro racing tour by insulting sponsors, and worked his way out of marriage by insulting his wife and her family. “The asshole portion of his brain was untouched,” comments a friend about the Johnson that has survived the traumatic head injury he suffered five years ago in a brave, yet foolhardy attempt to return to World Cup racing at the age of 40.
Maier, on the other hand, is adored by his sponsors and by 74 percent of his fellow Austrians, who call him their favorite athlete. At one point in his struggle to race again, Maier had stationary-biked 6,000 miles and lifted more than 800 tons to strengthen his legs. Johnson, on the other hand, found physical therapy boring, and replaced it with smoking and drinking.
Maier finds a role model in Lance Armstrong, who writes a foreword to his book. Maybe we could never expect Johnson to use Jimmie Heuga or Jill Kinmont as a model, but his behavior has too often insulted the sport that gave him his moment of Olympic fame.