Olympic medalist Jimmie Heuga sits in a wheelchair and smiles. As he does, nearly 50 years melt away and he looks just like his 10-year-old son, Blaze, who, like his dad, loves skiing and can play soccer barefoot on the snow.
Apparently, Blaze’s character comes from his dad’s Basque background, which has furnished Jimmie with the stubborn character that has helped him challenge multiple sclerosis, or MS, in the past 30 years, Heuga says.
Heuga still smiles, despite the difficult things he has experienced. Although his health — and to a lesser degree his cognitive abilities — have been progressively deteriorating for the past seven years, he says now he’s going through his toughest times. Two years or so ago, he moved to an assisted-living community in Louisville, outside Boulder, leaving his three children — Wilder, 12, Blaze and Winston, 7 — in the Vail Valley. And just a few months ago, a divorce was finalized with his wife, Debbie, 44.
“There are all these emotional challenges,” he says. “I’m not an unhappy person, but I’m a sad one.”
Part of his sadness is the reality of being institutionalized. He has chafed at his living conditions and in unguarded moments calls the place a “prison.” But Heuga was assessed by doctors as needing 100 percent physical and medical care, which this facility provides. The problem is that most of the other people there are 30 years or more his senior.
Jimmie says he sees MS as a chronic condition, not an illness.
“I have a disease, but I still have my health,” he says, adding that he has never had a common cold because of MS, which causes his immune system to be hyperactive.
The decision that he needed around-the-clock assistance was brutal, emotional and life-changing for him and his ex-wife.
“I have tried to maintain a tolerable balance in our lives knowing that everyone has challenges and knowing that everyone deals with them in different ways,” Debbie Heuga says.
She unsuccessfully wards off tears when speaking of the decision and the stress and strain it put on her family.
She fears that people will rush to judge her as having abandoned her husband. But the personal care situation became so difficult, she was unable to provide for his care, the care of their children and for any of her own needs, she says.
“The horrible thing about all of this is that nobody likes the idea of Jimmie or any other 58-year-old person having to live in a ‘skilled-care’ center. But the reality is that it was medically, emotionally and physically necessary for all of our survival.”
Debbie and the boys have built a life as normal as possible, thanks to her commitment, as well as that of supportive and caring friends, she says.
Jimmie and Debbie Heuga met in Aspen at a funeral for his nephew, during which he delivered a eulogy.
Both say it was love at first sight; they were married in five weeks.
It was Jimmie’s second marriage, and her first.
“I asked her to marry me on the plane going to a Snow Express event in Sun Valley,” Heuga says.
When she met Jimmie, she says, she didn’t even know he had won an Olympic medal at Innsbruck in 1964.
At the Olympics, Jimmie Heuga and Billy Kidd won the first U.S. Olympic medals in men’s alpine skiing — Kidd won a silver; Heuga, a bronze. In 1970, at age 26 and at the peak of his ski-racing career, Heuga was diagnosed with MS. His life after that followed the recommended path — leading a sedentary lifestyle and avoiding any physical exertion that could aggravate matters. That didn’t work for Heuga. He embarked on a personal wellness program that eventually blossomed in Avon as the Jimmie Heuga Center.
“Debbie shared my passion for the center, too,” Jimmie says.
Fifteen years ago, Debbie Heuga started a series of annual dinners to honor people who have helped the center.
“It’s a successful center, and Jimmie’s input still is highly sought after,” she says.
Before Jimmie moved to Boulder in 1999, life was very stressful, Debbie says.
She had just finished building a house in Lake Creek for Jimmie and their three children.
She then embarked in endless research as to how to keep Jimmie at home as his health was deteriorating.
“I had a number of aides at home, but they would last a maximum of six months,” she says.
To take on private care would have cost the Heuga’s $16,000 a month — which was not covered by health insurance. Jimmie had to move to Boulder because the Vail Valley has no facility to house him, Debbie says.
“He needs 100 percent assistance, and I was not strong enough to care for Jimmie and our three boys,” Debbie says. “I was not sleeping, not eating, not taking care of myself or my kids because I was so overwhelmed with emotions and fears for Jimmie.”
In spite of Jimmie’s losses, Debbie makes a point of noting what he still has.
“He has three wonderful boys,” she says. “He lives at a nice, skilled-care, private-living center. He has a voice-activated computer to send and receive e-mails, be on the Internet and write his memoirs.”
He also has an automobile that accommodates a wheelchair, so people can take him wherever he wants to go.
Jimmie still is a member of The Heuga Center board and still serves as the center’s spokesman at events, says Kelly Graham, director of marketing at The Heuga Center.
“We’re in communication with him frequently,” Graham says. “He still provides direction and inspiration for the center.”
Jimmie hasn’t quit skiing, either. Last year he skied six days in Vail with his children using a “bi-ski,” a sit-down ski apparatus with two articulated skis beneath it.
“The kids were so excited, they told me, ‘Dad, we thought we’d never ski with you again’,” Heuga says. “And I can carve a turn.”
Heuga counts his children as his greatest success.
“But there’s so much more I’ll like to do. I’m a dreamer, and I would like to expand our program to Europe (and) gather former Olympians for fund-raisers with the line, ‘I’m back.’”