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Olympic Champion Still in Coma


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Kalispell, Mont. (AP by Tim Korte)–The diagnosis says Bill Johnson is comatose. To his family, the tears and his four fingers suggest the former Olympic downhill champion is as determined as ever.

Johnson remained hospitalized in a coma Sunday, three days after sustaining severe head trauma after crashing during an FIS downhill, but doctors were very encouraged and impressed by his progress.

“We’re extremely pleased. He has surprised everyone,” said Dr. Keith Lara, director of emergency care at Kalispell Regional Medical Center. “He’s a pretty good fighter.”

Johnson is still listed in critical condition. But DB Johnson, his mother, said he opened his eyes for the first time Sunday and she saw tears well up while she spoke to him.

“We know he’s hearing,” she said. “We’re not sure he can understand what we’re saying. Every time I talked to him, he got tears. He also winced. One eye opened when people, some friends, came to talk to him.”

She said Johnson also moved the fingers of his right hand Sunday after moving his toes and left hand Saturday.

“The fact that he did move his right hand, not his arm but his fingers, is very, very encouraging,” she said before boarding a flight back to her home near Portland, Ore.

Mary Johnson, his stepmother, said Johnson was asked by a doctor to hold up two fingers if he could hear.

“He held up four fingers and tried grabbing our hands,” she said. “I don’t know what it was about. Maybe he was trying to tell us something, probably that he is still a very strong-willed person.”

Johnson, 40, crashed face first Thursday during an FIS downhill. He was treated by ski patrol medics and a race doctor at Big Mountain Resort, then taken to the hospital by helicopter.

Johnson is best known for brashly predicting victory at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, then winning. He had only one World Cup victory at that time but told rivals the gold was his.

His confidence was evident again when Johnson approached U.S. Ski Team officials last year about a comeback, telling them he planned to compete in the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Now, Johnson could be “days, weeks or maybe even months” from coming out of the coma, Lara said. Johnson faces hurdles that are typical for a patient with his injuries, including potential for pneumonia and bladder infections.

And, of course, he hasn’t regained consciousness.

“He is comatose because he’s out,” Mary Johnson said. “He’s incubated. He isn’t breathing on his own. He has to be awakened and stimulated to get any reaction. His condition is very, very serious.”

Relatives and close friends will take turns staying with Johnson. Besides his mother and stepmother, his brother, sister, two sons and ex-wife gathered after the crash. DB Johnson plans to return next week.

“Somebody will always be with him to support him and help him through this,” she said.

Relatives praised the care Johnson received on the mountain and at the hospital. They also were grateful to the Ski Team for its support, which included paying travel and lodging for the family.

Finally, they asked to convey their thanks to thousands of people who sent get-well wishes through a link on the Ski Team’s Web site.

“We’re getting messages from people who don’t even know him, from people who followed his career and from people internationally,” DB Johnson said. “He’s got a lot of friends all over the world.”

Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press