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Vail Valley Voices: Heuga name should stay

Warren Miller
Vail, CO Colorado
valleyvoices@vaildaily.com

I first met Jimmie Heuga in 1951, when he was 8 years old. His reputation had preceded him. On a steep rope-tow hill at Squaw Valley, there was already a tough slalom course set up, and Jimmie was running it with the fluidity of a 25-year-old racing veteran. He was on skis that somebody had given him that were at least 7 feet long and very stiff. The pictures that I took of Jimmie made my film a lot better that year.

In 1960, when the winter Olympics came to Squaw Valley, Jimmie was only 14 years old. Since he was so young, the so-called wise people on the Olympic team selection committee deemed him too young to be on the team. That was even though he was consistently beating some of the team members. I ran into him several times at those Olympics, and he always had a smile on his face and told me, “My time will come.” He trained hard for the next four years, and, in 1964, he finished third in the Olympic slalom behind teammate Billy Kidd and the winner Pepi Stiegler.

Three years later, Jimmie started having trouble skiing and experiencing the first symptoms of multiple sclerosis. By 1970, he was officially diagnosed with MS, and his bottomless downhill slide began about that same time. When I first saw Jimmie with his MS at the Las Vegas ski show, I thought that he had just been up all night. He was really wobbly on his feet. When he told me about his MS diagnosis, I said, “When this trade show is finished, I’m buying you an airplane ticket to Los Angeles and we are going to make a movie about you and MS.” I had no idea what I would do, I just wanted him on film doing what he could still do: barely ride a bicycle, maybe sail a boat and still swim in a wetsuit.

By this time, he had come up with the thinking that became the motto of the Heuga Center: “Learn to make do with what you have left.” This is what they train their patients to do.

When I can’t keep up with my children or a lot of other people, whether it’s skiing, sailing, surfing, golf or any athletic endeavor, I recite that Heuga motto to myself. I have learned to function with what I have left and I lower my expectations and I enjoy every moment of every day to its fullest. I have to give Jimmie a lot of credit for this, because it has helped me to live with the many different medical problems I’ve had as I’ve gotten older.

During the many years that I lived in Vail, Jimmie and I skied together quite often. By then, he was already wearing laminated fiberglass leg supports on his thighs and calfs. His MS had disintegrated his physical ability so that he could only do snowplow turns on the beginning chairlift at Beaver Creek.

Just before moving to Vail, I sent a camera crew to Alaska to film the first Heuga Express. It was a fundraiser for which a lot of world-class racers flew to Alyeska to ski for dollars to support Jimmie in his endeavors.

Since that time, the Heuga Express has expanded rapidly, and, for many years, Jimmie went to all of the Heuga Express races and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. At many of the stops he and his staff learned more of what could be done for people with MS.

During those early years of travel time Jimmie, together with the help of many friends and donors, established the Heuga Center for the treatment of multiple sclerosis in Vail.

The other day, I got a phone call from a friend in Vail who told me the people at the center are trying to change the name of the Heuga Center to “Can Do MS.” I think that taking the name of Jimmie Heuga off of the foundation is a major mistake. Thousands of skiers every year look to Jimmie for inspiration and a place to send their donations. Trying to raise money for a fundraiser called Can Do MS doesn’t make me want to honor and help to continue the search for the cure.

Just as I started writing this, I learned that Jimmie is once again in the hospital. I do hope this issue will be resolved correctly to take that stress off of Jimmie. He needs all his resources to keep his health.

If you agree with this thinking, send a message to ksharkey@heuga.org or to DDana4@aol.com and keep the name of one of a man who has inspired tens of thousands of people right where it belongs: on the door of the Heuga Center.

Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff log onto Warren Miller.net


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