SBIFF revisits skiing’s Bill Johnson

Bill Johnson rose to fame as the United States' first downhill Gold Medalist in the 1984 Winter Olympics.

“This course was designed for me,” Bill Johnson said right before his downhill ski race in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, “and everyone else is here to fight for second place.”

The other racers were not too pleased with Bill’s attitude, but Johnson went on to win the United States’ first Olympic gold medal in downhill racing. It was this mixture of personality and heroism that attracted director Zeke Piestrup to Bill Johnson’s story.

“Downhill: the Bill Johnson Story” premieres this Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. It is less the story of badboy Johnson’s famous victory, but of his consequent downfall and attempted comeback.

Bill retired from downhill racing in 1988, but decided at the age of 40 in 2001 to give it a second shot. The risk almost cost him his life.

“[Bill]’s life as a great downhiller is really just a set-up,” Piestrup said, “the rest of the movie follows his comeback, the choices he was making, and this belief he had in his mind that the prize in the end was winning his life and family back.”

Bill Johnson’s story is not one just about skiing, but about family and choices. Bill Johnson is a modern American tragic hero, charismatic and full of hubris, and that’s what makes this documentary compelling.

“Some people find Bill’s story depressing,” Piestrup said, “but it’s not to me at all. Yeah, bad stuff happens to him, but every time I think of Bill I see his smile. He just has this glint in his eye… he’s always in a positive mood.”

Piestrup didn’t originally set out to make a movie, but to write an article about Bill Johnson for the 25th anniversary of his gold-medal victory. “I’d always wondered whatever happened to that guy.” So Piestrup looked up Bill’s mother and set up an interview. “Instead of doing an interview though I brought my camera and said I’d see what was up. I didn’t know what Bill’s true condition was or how I was going to tell his story… I thought somebody else should be making this film. Why weren’t they? His story is that amazing.”

It’s a personal film for Piestrup, who not only directed the film but wrote, shot, edited and produced the entire thing on his own. The only thing he didn’t do was score the film. “To be able to create something from beginning to end by yourself is hugely appealing to me,” he said.

“Downhill: The Bill Johnson Story” will also be showing Tuesday, February 1st at the Santa Barbara Metro 4 Theater IV.