Doc: Johnson 'A Fighter'

Olympic gold medalist Bill Johnson of Van Nuys, Calif., skis on the Birds of Prey World Cup course at Beaver Creek, Colo., during a Super G competition Monday, Dec. 4, 2000, at the Super Series. After placing 51st in a field of 77. Johnson is trying to make a comeback and get enough points to race the downhill in Canada and qualify for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002. Johnson won a gold medal during the men s downhill at the Sarajevo Winter Olympics in 1984. (AP Photo/U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, Nathan Bilow)
Former Olympic downhill champion Bill Johnson remained hospitalized in a coma Sunday, but doctors were "extremely pleased" by the skier's progress since his crash three days earlier.

Dr. Keith Lara, director of emergency medical care at Kalispell Regional Medical Center, said Johnson was responding to pain and making small movements in his hospital bed.

"He's begun to grimace to pain and make purposeful movement on his left side," Lara said. "He's pulling at things on his left side, tugging his covers, at IVs and at tubes."

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.

He remained in critical condition Sunday but Lara said Johnson survived "two highly potential mortal injuries." He sustained severe head trauma and part of his tongue, which he bit during the crash, was blocking his airway.

"It was not only blocking the airway, he was bleeding into his lung," Lara said.

Johnson needed a breathing tube on the mountain and emergency room doctors performed a tracheotomy. During four hours of surgery, doctors drained blood from his brain and left lung before his brain swelled.

Lara said the swelling went down after doctors "cut a big flap in the skull" to relieve pressure.

"We review him daily multiple times," Lara said. "We're extremely pleased. He has surprised everyone. He's a pretty good fighter."

Lara said Johnson could be "days, weeks or maybe even months away" from coming out of the coma, but doctors and relatives who are holding vigil at his bedside are very encouraged.

"He's doing a whole lot better. We're extremely pleased," Lara said. "They're reducing sedation. He's becoming agitated, which is good, but he's still in a light coma."

Johnson is most famous for brashly predicting victory at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, then backing it up. Although he had only one World Cup victory at that time, he told rivals they were racing for second place.

It was the same kind of risk-taking that led him to race again. Johnson approached U.S. Ski Team officials last year about a comeback, telling them he planned to compete in the 2002 Winter Olympics.

©MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed