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Jimmy Heuga: ‘The toughest I’ve ever met’

EDWARD STONER
vail daily
Billy Kidd, Bob Beattie and Jimmie Heuga at the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria
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EDWARDS – Jimmie Heuga, the American skier who won a bronze medal in the 1964 Olympics and later used his battle with multiple sclerosis to help other people diagnosed with that disease, died Monday.

He was 66.

In 1984, Heuga founded the Vail Valley-based Jimmie Heuga Center, which sought to encourage people with multiple sclerosis to adopt healthy lifestyles and positive attitudes. The group is now called Can Do Multiple Sclerosis.

“Obviously, the world knew him for his accomplishments as a ski racer, but I admire him even more because of how he led his life, especially with the challenges of MS,” said Billy Kidd, of Steamboat Springs, who stood on the podium alongside Heuga in the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Kidd won silver, and Heuga won bronze.

Friends used one common word to describe Heuga: “tough.”

“He’s probably the toughest guy, both on and off skis, both mentally and physically, that I’ve ever known,” said Bob Beattie, of Aspen, a longtime friend who coached Heuga on the U.S. Ski Team and at the University of Colorado.

A precocious talent who rose quickly through the youth racing ranks, Heuga was the first American man – along with Kidd – to win an Olympic medal in alpine skiing, a breakthrough for the American ski team. Almost no one thought they would pull off such a performance.

“Our parents did,” Kidd said. “And Bob Beattie. Nobody else did.”

Kidd and Heuga were pictured together on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1968.

Debbie Heuga, of Edwards, who was married to Jimmie, remembered him, first and foremost, for his brilliant smile.

“He was a man of vision, and he was such a thrill in the ski world, and he helped so many people in the medical community as well,” she said.

Heuga loved nothing more than skiing, said his first wife, Sharon Lee Dwight, of Seattle.

“He was like a little kid,” she said. “Even when we got older, when the snow would start to fall, it would bring over him this aura of magic, because he loved the time when the snow began to fall.”

James Frederick Heuga was born Sept. 22, 1943, in Lake Tahoe, Calif., to Lucille and Pascal Heuga, a Basque immigrant who was a lift operator at Squaw Valley.

Heuga began skiing at age 2, and, by age 5, he was racing competitively. He appeared in a Warren Miller film at age 9. At age 18, he was named to the U.S. Ski Team.

He skied for Beattie both on the U.S. Ski Team and the University of Colorado, where he was the 1963 NCAA champion in slalom. Other accomplishments include a sixth place in slalom and a fourth place in the combined at the 1966 World Championships at Portillo, Chile. He was the first American to win the Arlberg-Kandahar race in Garmisch, Germany.

“As a skier, he was unbelievable,” Beattie said. “He could run up a mountain faster than anyone you’ve ever seen, and, mentally, as far as getting down the mountain, he was something else. Spectacular under pressure.”

Bill Marolt, now president and CEO of the U.S. Ski Team, skied with Heuga on the 1964 Olympic Team.

“Jimmie Heuga was a champion in every sense of the word,” Marolt said in a statement released Monday. “He was a champion as an athlete, as a person and any way you want to measure him.”

“We always talk about toughness – you heard about it in the Super Bowl this weekend,” Marolt said. “When I look back at all the athletes I’ve known, pound for pound, Jimmie Heuga was the toughest I’ve ever met. He was a 5’6, 140-pound guy who didn’t back down from anybody. That’s the kind of toughness you need to be a champion.”

Heuga’s career was cut short by the effects of multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system and is often debilitating. There is no known cure.

Heuga began to feel symptoms in 1968, the same year he competed in the Olympics in Grenoble, France. The diagnosis was made in 1970, when he was still in his 20s.

“The doctors said, ‘You have MS, and there’s no cure, and we don’t know what caused it, but the best thing to do is preserve your energy,” Kidd said. “You only have a certain amount of energy left, so don’t waste it on exercise.”

Heuga tried that for a while, giving up skiing and exercising, but found he wasn’t happy. He started exercising – swimming, walking, biking – and found that he felt much better, both mentally and physically.

Based on that philosophy of leading an active lifestyle, Heuga founded the Jimmie Heuga Center in 1984. He spent years sharing and teaching his philosophy.

“Instead of crying and complaining and whimpering about it, he tried to do something about it,” Beattie said. “He tried to do something that made it better for others to the best of his ability.”

In 1999, Heuga began living at an assisted-care facility near Boulder. He was forced to use a wheelchair as the effects of multiple sclerosis worsened.

His organization went through a couple of name changes. It was called the Heuga Center for Multiple Sclerosis, and then, last year, its name was changed to Can Do Multiple Sclerosis to better reflect its mission.

Heuga said he wasn’t particularly pleased about the name change, but, by January of this year, he had taken the title of fundraising and public education director of the Jimmie Heuga Center Endowment of Can Do Multiple Sclerosis.

In 2008, the Edwards-based organization’s programs served more than 10,000 people.

“We are deeply saddened,” said Kim Sharkey, CEO of Can Do Multiple Sclerosis. “Our condolences go out to Jimmie’s family and friends. He will always be an inspiration to all.”

Heuga was inducted into Vail’s Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1987. He is an honored member of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, inducted in 1976, and was named to the Colorado Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000. He has been honored by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and was awarded the U.S. Ski Team’s Texaco Star Award. He has been on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, and was inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame two years ago.

He is survived by sons Wilder, Blaze and Winston, of Edwards and daughter Kelly Hamill of Seattle.

Contributions may be made to the Jimmie Heuga Endowment Fund, 27 Main Street East, Suite 303, Edwards, CO 81632.


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