Peter Shelton

Jimmie Heuga, Little Big Man

Posted in Olympic Games, Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on February 17, 2010

It’s Monday, Presidents’ Day. Bode Miller just won bronze in the Olympic downhill. (I predicted he’d lay down a brilliant run or two over the fortnight. With the pressure all on Lindsey Vonn and with Bode happy, finally, with his skis and with himself, I thought the genius might shine again.)

Today is also the public memorial for Jimmie Heuga, who died at age 66 on February 8th, 46 years to the day after his bronze medal in slalom at the Innsbruck Olympics. Heuga and Billy Kidd, both 20 and teammates at the University of Colorado, brought home the first-ever U.S. men’s alpine skiing medals that day in 1964. Kidd, the perennially cowboy-hatted icon for the Steamboat ski area, took the silver behind Austria’s Pepi Stiegler.

I know this because two days ago, I skied a few runs at Telluride with old friend Seth Masia. Seth is a former editor at Ski Magazine and current web guru for Skiing Heritage, the journal of the International Skiing History Association. What Seth doesn’t know about ski history would fill a book, a slim one. With his daughter Cleo, he was heading, roundabout from their home in Boulder, to Heuga’s memorial in Beaver Creek.

The three of us skied past the top of the run called Allais’s Alley, and Seth noted, “That’s Emile Allais, world champion in 1937 and 1938. Great proponent of the French parallel method. He designed some of the early trails here. And he taught Jimmie Heuga to ski.”

That was at Squaw Valley in California, where Allais, a wavy-haired hero of the French Resistance as well as a ski god, hired on as the first ski school director in 1949, and Heuga was a tiny—he would grow eventually to 5’ 6” and 140 pounds—rug rat.

Heuga’s father Pascal, a French Basque immigrant, ran the lifts at Squaw, and young Jimmie, despite his size, developed into a fiercely confident prodigy. When he was 12 he drove himself (there was a chaperone in the passenger seat)—perched forward to reach the pedals and peering through the steering wheel—from Lake Tahoe all the way to Sun Valley, Idaho, for junior nationals.

At 15 he became the youngest member of the U.S. Ski Team. No one before or since has been asked to join at a younger age. He was avid and quick to smile. Skiing Magazine, in its February 1964 pre-Olympic issue, described him as “light weight, wiry, excels in tightly controlled acrobatic slalom course.”

Kidd’s and Heuga’s dual feat transformed American ski racing. Expectations forever changed, as the sport morphed from amateur passion to full-time, big-money profession. Heuga had more exceptional racing in him, though a personal tragedy affected his results for the next couple of years. His fiancée, driving from Colorado to see him in Tahoe, fell asleep at the wheel, rolled the car and died in the accident.

He was coming back emotionally, scoring well in the inaugural World Cup season of 1967, when he began to notice numbness below his waist. And his vision would sometimes go blurry. Then the symptoms would subside. He competed in the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, placing eighth in slalom, but by then whatever was afflicting him was messing with his balance, too. In 1970 he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

I visited Heuga at the Jimmie Heuga Center for the Reanimation of the Physically Challenged a year after its opening, in Vail, in 1984. Heuga could still walk then, though with a staggered gait that was once described (by a man who didn’t know about the MS) as resembling someone walking on hot potatoes. Heuga smiled as he told me this. Then, touching the walls of his office here and there for balance, he added, “I may end up in a wheelchair. That’s not so bad. It’s the waiting around for the wheelchair that’s nuts.”

When Heuga was diagnosed, everyone, world-class athletes included, was encouraged to become sedentary. It was thought exercise hastened the disease’s progress. (MS eats away the myelin sheaths that insulate the body’s nervous system. Information from the brain to the muscles short-circuits.) But the sitting around left Heuga depressed, deprived of his essential joy in movement.

He decided to ditch the common wisdom and start exercising again, which did wonders for his mental and physical fitness, and led eventually to his founding the Heuga Center, now known as Can Do Multiple Sclerosis. The Center’s programs can’t reverse the disease—it’s still largely a medical mystery—but they have improved quality of life for thousands of patients through goal setting, better fitness, and crucial attitude adjustments; in Heuga’s term, reanimating their lives.

In what has to be a bizarre coincidence, two other skiing medalists from those 1964 Games have been diagnosed with MS. The Austrian Egon Zimmerman, who won the downhill, learned he had the disease in 1987. Seventy-one now, he says with the stoicism of a mountain farmer, which he is, “Everybody gets a rucksack loaded with things.”

Pepi Stiegler, long-time ski school director at Jackson Hole and the gold medalist ahead of Kidd and Heuga, was diagnosed in 1992. Stiegler is 72. His brand of MS is less severe than Heuga’s; he can still hike in his beloved Tetons. But his memory has got troubling holes in it. He says he has of necessity become less of a perfectionist, and more outgoing. “I relate better to people now.”

Billy Kidd made it to Heuga’s bedside in Boulder just as his friend passed away.

Emile Allais, Seth told me on the chairlift, went back to France and lives above his ski shop in Flaine north of Chamonix. He is 98.

One Response

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  1. Mary Ann Dismant said, on March 11, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    Peter, The story of Jimmie Heuga’s life was so inspiring to me. I have severe arthritis at the base os my spine. The M. D.”s said it would never get better, but if I did my daily ex. it cld keep from getting worse. Jimmie’s determination, and his founding of the Clinic, were hopeful to read about. I can’t wait for your book on ski instr. You do a great job with the over 60’s. You have quite a gift at choosing just the most pertinent topics, or better, worwhile topics, deleting all that is unnecessary, and writing what turns out to be pure gold. KEEP WRITING.
    Mary Ann

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