Vail Daily column: Celebrating the spirit of Heuga’s legacy
Ryan Summerlin March 10, 2014
Can Do MS is celebrating two important anniversaries in 2014. First, it marks the 50th anniversary of our founder Jimmie Heuga winning an Olympic medal. On Feb. 8, 1964, Heuga and U.S. Ski Team teammate Billy Kidd were the first American men to win medals in alpine skiing. This year also marks Can Do Multiple Sclerosis’ 30th anniversary of empowering people living with multiple sclerosis. To capture the spirit and history of Heuga’s legacy in both skiing and the MS community, we sat down with friend and teammate Billy Kidd and Heuga’s oldest son, Wilder.
Can Do MS: What does the 50th anniversary of winning medals in the ’64 Olympics mean to you?
Billy Kidd: Well, it’s a reminder that just a few short decades have clicked by since Jimmie and I won our medals. I think Jimmie, myself and several of us who were in those 1964 Olympics haven’t looked back that much in our lives because we’ve always tried to live in the present and look ahead. But this particular anniversary is a significant reminder.
Wilder Heuga: It’s the kind of thing I feel a lot of pride about — thinking on what Billy and my dad were able to accomplish: To be the first men to be able to do it for America — it’s just awesome.
Can Do MS: When the idea for the first Heuga Express (now Vertical Express for Can Do MS) in Alyeska, Alaska, came to fruition in 1984, do you think Jimmie had any idea that it would continue for 30 years and raise more than $11 million?
BK: Jimmie was very creative, and he characteristically thought outside the box. His fresh thinking applied not only to the fundraiser in Alaska, but to his entire approach on having MS, which literally changed the medical world’s way of treating MS. With that first Heuga Express in Alaska, Jimmie rallied teammates, competitors and friends from the Olympics, including Jean-Claude Killy, Stein Ericksen, Phil and Steve Mahre and others. Coming together for that fundraiser helped start The Jimmie Heuga Center for MS (now Can Do MS). Jimmie was especially proud that the initial seed money came from President Gerald Ford.
Can Do MS: Can Do MS will be celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. What do you think Jimmie would be most proud of?
WH: Just the amount of people he’s been able to help and that people are going out on the slopes and still having a good time while raising money for people with MS.
BK: I don’t think I can say it better than Wilder. Jimmie would be extremely pleased with the fact that he helped so many people, despite the fact that there was doubt that an exercise program could help anyone who had MS, not just for an Olympic athlete.
Can Do MS: Tell me about one of your most memorable times skiing with Jimmie.
WH: One of my favorite things was when he got into his sit-ski. He would just cruise on that thing and would go so fast! Once he wanted to go to the Back Bowls and Blue Sky Basin at Vail on a powder day. He and his instructor took a pretty gnarly fall. He was the first to hop back up (laughs), and he was ready to go. Meanwhile, his coach was still getting himself back together, and my dad was just looking at him like … let’s go!
BK: Definitely, it was the 1964 Olympics because those few minutes dramatically changed our lives. Neither of us realized at the time how it was going to impact our future. Winning a medal would have been much less significant if either of us had won by ourselves. Winning our medals together brought us closer and linked us forever, and our medals brought global attention and credibility to the U.S. Ski Team.
Can Do MS: When someone asks you about the legacy of Jimmie Heuga, what do you tell them?
WH: I think he has two legacies: One in ski racing, and one in MS. I think he has been able to help so many people, virtually every person who has ever had MS, by incorporating exercise into their lives.
BK: As Wilder said, Jimmie made two significant contributions. First, to U.S. skiing and ski racing. But far beyond the sport of skiing, Jimmie made an even greater contribution because he literally changed the way the medical community thought about and treated MS.
Can Do MS: Wilder, what’s the best piece of advice your father gave you?
WH: When it came to skiing, he wasn’t adamant on giving me tips on being a great racer; what he taught me was a love for skiing.
Can Do MS: Billy, I have to ask you, with the Olympics coming up, who’s your American favorite for winning the most medals in skiing?
BK: Well, I think the U.S. team is going to be the best at the Sochi Olympics. It’s exciting to have so many Americans on top. My focus is on Bode Miller, Ted Ligety, Julia Mancuso and, now, Mikaela Shiffrin. They’re the best in the world. It’s disappointing that Lindsey Vonn will miss these Games. In Steamboat, we’re very excited because the world will see about 15-20 athletes from the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club compete in Sochi.
Can Do MS: If you could tell Jimmie one thing right now, what would you tell him?
BK: I’d tell him how grateful we all are. Those who knew him really well, like his three boys, me, coach Bob Beattie, Jimmie’s wife Debbie, teammates Bill Marolt, Buddy Werner, Chuck Ferries and others were really grateful for knowing him and for being able to spend time with him. Also, for people who didn’t know Jimmie, but who just heard Jimmie’s story, who are grateful for his life and for the hope he inspired. Jimmie’s story and message are inspirational for everyone: “Don’t feel sorry for me, I just have MS. Some people have real problems, like, maybe you can’t balance your checkbook!”
So you can see that Jimmie kept his sense of humor. He also often said, “Do the best you can with what you have … never give up!”
WH: That’s a difficult question … I would tell my dad I feel very fortunate for being in his life and being his son. I think as far as being grateful, I have a friend in New York who called me one morning after being at a party with a woman who was my age, 24 or 25. She told him that her hero was my dad. Obviously, my friend said “Oh, that’s my friend’s dad!” It was an important moment for me to have a person that young who knew my dad’s story say he was her hero.
Can Do MS: What are you guys most excited about for Saturday’s Vail Vertical Express event?
WH: I’m pretty excited about the run Vail is re-naming for the day to Jimmie Heuga Express. I’m excited to ski down that. I always love talking to people because a lot of them have met my dad, and I usually get some pretty cool stories out of that.
BK: I think Feb. 8 (Saturday) is going to be a combination of reflecting on what Jimmie did for skiing and also what he did for the world of medicine and for MS. Because the 50th is such an important anniversary for us as skiers and as friends of Jimmie’s, the date will be an opportunity to reflect on what a significant contribution Jimmie Heuga made to the world.
Wilder Heuga is a film student at Chapman University in California. Billy Kidd is the director of skiing at Steamboat Ski Resort. Wilder’s younger brothers, Blaze and Winston, are following in their father’s footsteps, and ski tracks, attending the University of Colorado at Boulder. The Heuga boys and Kidd will be joining us on the slopes for our Vail Vertical Express event on Saturday.
Note: Jimmie Heuga died on Feb. 8, 2010, 46 years to the day after he made Olympic history.
To learn more about Can Do MS, Vertical Express or Jimmie Heuga’s story, visit www.mscando.org.
To celebrate with Can Do MS this year at our Vail Vertical Express event, visit www.mscando.org/vail.
Scott Robinson is the marketing and strategic partnership representative for Can Do MS.
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