First on the podium, 50 years later
VAIL — Skiing Lionshead with the late Jimmie Heuga’s three sons Saturday, ski racing legend Billy Kidd used the opportunity to recall Heuga’s perfect form on the slopes.
“He was the Ted Ligety of the 1960s,” Kidd said. “He won the biggest races; he was just an incredible skier. We were the same age, and I wanted to ski like Jimmie Heuga.”
The day was a celebration of Heuga’s life and also a celebration of Kidd and Heuga’s silver and bronze finishes at the ’64 Olympics — the first podiums ever achieved by American male skiers at the Games — which happened on that day 50 years earlier.
“We were 20 years old. It was our first Olympics, and we had a great time,” Kidd said Saturday. “When we came back with medals, we had our picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and it locked Jimmie and I together for the rest of our lives.”
Kidd said Heuga’s technique on skis was the model form for skiers in America to try to emulate in the ’60s.
“You may not have watched Jimmie Heuga’s technique on the run today, he was a little difficult to see, but I felt him there today,” Kidd said. “The reason that was significant to me is because Jimmie and I skied Vail the first time December of 1962, the first year that Vail opened. We came up here skied in the Back Bowls of Vail and raced, and that was the beginning of Jimmie Heuga’s association with Vail.”
Not long after his legendary run as a ski racer in the ’60s, Heuga learned he had multiple sclerosis. In 1984, he founded the Jimmie Heuga Center for Multiple Sclerosis, based out of the Vail Valley. He later fathered three sons, all born in Vail.
The Jimmie Heuga Center for Multiple Sclerosis is now called Can Do Multiple Sclerosis, and it is celebrating 30 years as a national nonprofit organization. On Saturday, the run Kidd and Heuga’s sons skied down was renamed the Jimmie Heuga Express in honor of Heuga and Can Do MS; Kidd and the Huegas were joined by 100 or so other skiers who attacked the run from top to bottom in celebration.
“I think he’d be really proud,” Jimmie Heuga’s son Blaze said. “A lot of my friends knew he had MS, but I don’t think they really knew anything about it. So I think it was very cool for them to see this too; there were about 30 to 40 of mine and my brothers’ friends out here today. It was a cool experience.”
Blaze and his brothers, 19-year-old Winston and 24-year-old Wilder, were all born in Vail and raised in the Vail Valley. They now attend college at CU and Chapman University, respectively.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the final face of Simba that crowded,” Blaze Heuga said.
“It’s so great to have everyone all together here in Vail,” said Debbie Heuga, Blaze and his brothers’ mother and Jimmie’s former wife. “This is where it all began.”
‘THERE’S NO CURE’
Also celebrating Heuga in Vail on Saturday was Dr. Jon Feeney, the former medical director of the Heuga Center, Jimmie and Debbie Heuga’s personal doctor, and the man who delivered Wilder, Blaze and Winston into the world.
“Jimmie’s real contribution was to take his philosophy in taking care of himself and allowing the medical community to step in and do the research,” said Feeney.
While the common practice at the time was to discourage physical exertion among MS patients, Heuga decided that practice wasn’t for him.
“When they finally figured it out in 1970 they said ‘Jimmie, you have MS. There’s no cure; we don’t know what to do, but you have a certain amount of energy left. Don’t waste it on exercise,’” Kidd said Saturday. “Jimmie listened to the doctors for years and he just got more and more sedentary and he just got more and more unhappy, until finally he decided, ‘I’m going to go out and exercise.’ … It changed his attitude, it changed his muscles, it changed his life completely.”
Heuga spread the word about his approach to handling the symptoms of MS, and slowly but surely, the world took notice.
“Jimmie went into the history books for winning a bronze medal in the Olympics. … Now the medical community has changed completely because of Jimmie Heuga,” said Kidd. “I think that’s a far more important contribution to life on this planet.”
‘WHEN DID HE STOP?’
These days, enjoying exercise while fighting MS is a widely accepted practice. But it hasn’t been embraced by everyone.
On Saturday, MS patient Cissie Williford got back on skis for the first time in three years after a chance meeting with Debbie Heuga.
“I met (Williford) last night, and she asked me, ‘When did Jimmie stop skiing?’” Debbie Heuga said Saturday. “I said ‘He didn’t.’ I talked to her about it and said, ‘Look, the instructor tethers you in; you’re in control. Just go do it!’”
Williford said she was thrilled to be back on the mountain through Vail’s adaptive ski program and Can Do MS.
“It was wonderful,” Williford said Saturday. “I rode a chairlift, did three runs. It felt great. I said ‘I’m on a chairlift again! I can’t believe I’m on a chairlift again.’”
MS patient Ian Altman and his wife Irene drove six hours from Durango to attend Saturday’s celebration and ski the Jimmie Heuga Express with the group.
Altman said Jimmie Heuga is the reason he’s been able to cope with MS.
“Jimmie Heuga was a huge guiding light for me when I was diagnosed with MS,” Altman said. “Finding someone who really embraced exercise and had actually proven to the medical community that it was a good thing, it just showed me there was one person I could look to be like.”
For more information about Can Do MS, visit http://www.mscando.org.
Staff Writer John LaConte can be reached at 970-748-2988 and email@example.com