By JIMMY GOLEN, AP Sports Writer

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Bill Johnson has returned to the Olympics - not for the comeback he was hoping for, but for a pretty important one just the same.

The first American ever to win the Olympic downhill, Johnson was knocked comatose nearly two years ago when he crashed while trying to qualify for the games 18 years after his historic gold.

His body scarred and his speech still slurred, he made it to Salt Lake City as a torchbearer during the opening ceremonies. And on Wednesday, some of his fellow former Olympians held a fund-raiser to help pay for his rehabilitation.

``It doesn't make sense to me that everybody's here because of me,'' Johnson said. ``I didn't ask them to be here. They were told about the event and came by themselves. I affected a lot of people's lives.''

Wearing a fleece vest and a red baseball cap with amber-tinted sunglasses perched on the brim, Johnson looked fit for the slopes as he mingled with old friends and others in the Olympic family.

One man came by to compare accidents; he'd been riding his bicycle when he was hit by a drunk driver.

``That hurts,'' Johnson said sympathetically before adding, as if he were bragging to his buddies around an apres ski fire: ``It probably didn't hurt as much as mine did. I was out for a month.''

Johnson won the downhill at Sarajevo in 1984 and twice more after the Olympics, but he failed to qualify for the 1988 Calgary games and retired soon after that. A little more than a year ago, having endured the death of his youngest son and a divorce from his wife, he decided that a comeback was the solution to his problems.

But during a preliminary race at the 2001 U.S. championships, he caught an edge and pitched face-first into hard snow. He nearly bit through his tongue; his lungs filled up with blood; he had seven-inch long blood clots in his skull and a thumb-sized bruise on his brain. Doctors doubted whether he would survive.

Johnson was in a coma for three weeks, spent six more weeks in semi-consciousness and three months in rehab before he was able to go home. He is doing math at a fourth-grade level now, but is in pretty good shape physically.

One thing he does know - he has been skiing exactly 14 times this year.

``I can ski still. That's really important,'' he said. ``That's more important than I can even think of.''

But Johnson regresses into childhood traits and he doesn't remember an entire decade - the 1990s, years when his son died and his wife left him.

``He still thinks he's in love with his wife, who divorced him a couple of years ago,'' said his mother, DB Johnson. ``He loves her, and he doesn't know why she isn't with him.

``It's an American tragedy.''

Still, it's one with occasional triumphs. Just this week, Johnson recalled a minor event from 1997, and the family was encouraged by the possibility that more memories would return.

They're still waiting.

``I don't remember the accident. I don't remember why I was even skiing,'' Johnson said. ``Apparently, I remember why I wanted to come back: because my wife took my two kids and I wanted to get her back.

``Winning skiing,'' he said, ``that would have gotten her back.''

But Johnson, who is now 41, hasn't voiced any regrets.

``His attitude was, 'I wanted to do it, I did it and I have to accept the consequences,''' his mother says. ``And he says, 'I am alive today, and I could be gone.'''

With a brash style that prompted him to predict victory in Sarajevo, Johnson was not always the most popular skier on the circuit. But support was evident among the handful of former Olympians who showed up to see him and bid in a memorabilia auction that raised more than $13,000 for his medical bills.

John Naber, a 1976 swimming gold medalist, bid $3,500 for a replica of the Olympic torch. Other items were autographed by skater Michelle Kwan, members of gold medal-winning U.S. hockey teams and Johnson's training skis from both 1984 and 2001.

``We don't have enough money to relieve all of his burden,'' said Naber, president of an Olympic alumni group that has contributed to Johnson's cause. ``But we do have enough to let him know we still care about him.''

Johnson said he remembered many of the people there, but didn't recognize Heidi Preuss, a teammate from the 1984 U.S. ski team.

``I was prepared for that,'' she said. ``I had hoped, or expected, more. But you're always happy to see progress.''

Billy Kidd, who won silver in the 1964 slalom for the United States' first men's Alpine skiing medal, rubbed Johnson's gold medal and said, ``That's going to make me a better skier.''

Johnson beamed and read from the medal's inscription with pride.

``Fourteenth winter games,'' he said, flipping it over. ``That's the Par-the-non,'' he said, looking to his mother for confirmation.

``That's right,'' she said.

``Just like he was a little kid,'' she said later. ``Sometimes, all day he'll call me 'Mommy.' Sometimes he'll go a month without it.

``But I think the saddest and hardest thing for me right at the moment is he doesn't acknowledge his children the way you and I might,'' she said.

Johnson will play with them when they visit and hug them when they go, she said, ``but when they leave he doesn't remember all the time he spent with them - at ballgames and things like that.''

There have been a lot of milestones in Johnson's recovery. When he came out of a coma, certainly; when he was able to go home on last Sept. 1 as well.

But none compares to his first time skiing, on the last day of November - a day he initially remembered as the 31st before correcting himself. In true Bill Johnson style, it was against the wishes of his doctors, who wanted him to wait another month.

``He didn't want to wear a helmet,'' his mother said. ``He said, 'Why should I, I'm a good skier? I'm Bill Johnson.'

``I said, 'Bill Johnson doesn't carry any weight around here.'''

That morning, he sat down for breakfast fully dressed for skiing, including a helmet.

``It was like he was a beginner. He was very cautious, but he had good form so you knew he would be OK. He did four runs, and each run he beat us downhill.

``That was the best therapy for him,'' Mrs. Johnson said. ``All I can say is, he knows how to ski. It's just so beautiful to watch him.''

Skier Bill Johnson, who won a 1984 Olympic gold medal in men's downhill, talks about the aftermath of his near-fatal ski crash in Montana, while at his family's home in Gresham, Ore., Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2001. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)


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