VAL GARDENA, ITALY -- For a gold medal winner in the 1984 Winter Olympics' premier skiing event, Bill Johnson's performance here last weekend in the second downhill race of the World Cup season was nothing short of pathetic.
Still nursing an injured knee that kept him out for almost the entire season last winter, Johnson, now 27, coasted down the course a full 9.01 seconds behind the winner, Canadian Rob Boyd. In a field of 83 finishers, the onetime enfant terrible of downhill racing finished 81st, just ahead of a Liechtenstein nobleman who skis for Mexico and an entrant from mountainless Denmark.
"It felt good just getting down," said Johnson after the race on a tricky course on which, in 1986, he wiped out and seriously damaged his knee. "At least I made it further than I did last year."
While the normally cocky and fractious Johnson's new-found humility spoke of a particular -- and probably unique -- case in U.S. Alpine skiing, it also underlined how far America's fortunes in international skiing have sunk since the Sarajevo Olympics four years ago when U.S. men and women skiers won a total of five medals -- three gold and two silver.
In the 14 races held at the start of the 1987-88 World Cup season, American men and women have not done better than Edith Thys' seventh in a super giant slalom at Sestrieres, Italy last month and an eighth place by Felix McGrath in a giant slalom Sunday at Alta Badia here in the Dolomites.
The reasons for the Americans' weak start are not hard to find. The stars of yesteryear are either ailing or retired, and the young talent U.S. ski officials have recruited to replace them is inexperienced and untested.
Not only has Johnson not won a race since 1984 -- even before his injury last year -- but the two superstars of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, twins Phil and Steve Mahre, who won a gold and silver, respectively, in the slalom, are no longer racing.
The picture among U.S. women, traditionally the stronger of the U.S. ski teams, is even more dismal. "Our girls right now," said Jim Tracy, a coach with the men's downhill team, "are a case of the walking wounded."
Debbie Armstrong, who won the women's downhill gold medal at Sarajevo, is out because of a non-skiing injury to her back she suffered earlier this year. Tamara McKinney, the only U.S. woman to win the overall World Cup championship (1983) and a bronze medalist in the combined in the 1985 world championships, has been sidelined by a mild, boot-top fracture, although she is expected to be racing again before the Olympics begin. And Eva Twardokens, bronze medalist in the giant slalom in the 1985 world championships, tore up her knee in a crash at Vail, Colorado recently and will be out for the season.
As if that casualty toll was not enough, on Saturday the women's team lost downhiller Tori Pillinger, a five-year team veteran, when she crashed into the finish gate during a super giant slalom at Leukerbad, Switzerland, and broke her thigh bone.
Several U.S. team coaches interviewed here admit U.S. team chances for the Calgary Olympics in February seem bleak.
Andy Mill, for almost a decade a mainstay of the U.S. team as a downhill specialist, but in his retirement now better known as tennis star Chris Evert's boyfriend, says simply of his successors' chances: "Let's face it: we don't have much this year."
Theo Nadig, the Swiss-born U.S. men's downhill coach, places the blame, in part, on the so-called "star system" of past teams in which, he claimed, all the attention of U.S. ski officials and coaches focused on the Mahre twins while the development of younger skiers was neglected.
This "system," he said, has changed, although three years of development work have been "lost." And, he says, it will take two or three years to build a strong team.
But Swiss-born men's coach Paul Capaul insists his team cannot be written off for Calgary, especially if McGrath, whom he considers a "superb athlete," gains confidence before the Olympics by placing high in a few of the World Cup events next month.
"There is a lot of pressure on the team because everyone is saying it is bad," Capaul said. "We don't say we have to prove we are a legitimate team, because we know we are. We train as well as any nation in the world, work hard and ski hard. At some point, it is going to pay off for us."