Heuga enjoys helping others more than reliving Olympic history
Wednesday, February 25, 2004
Jimmie Heuga doesn't want to be one of those athletes who lives in the past, but sometimes he catches himself doing just that, and it embarrasses him.
He doesn't want to spend a lot of time thinking about that historic day 40 years ago this month when he and Billy Kidd became the first American men to win Olympic medals in alpine skiing. He would rather be pursuing his "calling," helping fellow victims of multiple sclerosis to live fuller lives through the Jimmie Heuga Center in Edwards.
He can't do that from his room at the Balfour Retirement Community, where he has lived since June 1998. Above the bed is a picture of him and Kidd exulting with coach Bob Beattie after their historic achievement in the slalom at the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics. Kidd won the silver medal, Heuga the bronze.
"It's embarrassing, but I think about it," Heuga says in his wheelchair. "I'm a little embarrassed because it's like, 'Get on with your life,' and I do. I think a lot of it is because I'm in this holding pattern the last five years. I can't pursue my calling, and that is the center."
The Heuga Center, which marks its 20th anniversary this year, teaches MS patients to manage their disease with exercise, a revolutionary approach when Heuga pioneered it two decades ago. MS is a disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system, and there is no known cause or cure.
"I didn't dwell on ski racing in the past," Heuga says. "I was into the calling I had then, to find ways for people with a personal challenge to get on with their lives through the emotional anchor that was a fitness program."
Heuga, 60, doesn't want to be in this "assisted living" facility that has been his home for nearly five years. He has three sons in Edwards, ages 14, 12 and 9. All of them compete for Ski Club Vail, but Heuga doesn't get to see them race often. He sees them a couple times a month.
"It's terrible," Heuga says. "I just miss my children so much."
MS is not fatal - those afflicted have normal life expectancies - but Heuga worries about his future. The funding that covers the $72,000 annual cost of his stay at Balfour is scheduled to expire in three years. Heuga has no idea what will happen then.
"That's why I say I'm in a holding pattern," Heuga says. "I feel like I've been thrown out of an airplane, and I'm not in a position to do much about it. I'm going for it until I crash."
United forever in a glorious moment for the U.S. Ski Team, Heuga and Kidd are closer today than they were when they won their Olympic medals the same weekend the Beatles made their debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Kidd, who lives in Steamboat Springs, goes out of his way to do things for Heuga whenever he can.
"One of the greatest reasons I love Kidd so much is the way he's taken care of Heuga," Beattie says. "He has really, really done a great job."
Heuga says Kidd has been a better friend to him than he has been to Kidd.
"I think it's just the opposite," Kidd says. "He's been a really good friend and an inspiration to me. I just feel bad I haven't done more for him. For anybody who knows him or has met him or even read about him, Jimmie is just bigger than life. He's the kind of person you read about and you think, 'He just couldn't be that good, he couldn't be that true,' but he is. He's just an amazing guy."
They were a couple of 20-year-old kids in 1964. Heuga was from Tahoe City, Calif., Kidd from Stowe, Vt. Their mentor was Buddy Werner of Steamboat Springs, an older teammate who had done great things in ski racing but had never won an Olympic medal. Innsbruck would be his last chance, and they knew it.
Beattie had been telling everyone who would listen that his men would win medals, but they were shut out in the downhill and the giant slalom. Heuga was disqualified in the GS for missing a gate, and to this day it rankles him because GS was his best event.
The slalom was their last shot.
"I thought we were the best-conditioned team in the world, I thought we had the most character, and I thought we had great athletes," Beattie said. "We all felt (winning medals) was possible, and we all felt it was going to happen, frankly. But there was a lot of pressure to make it happen."
Heuga could see he was skiing better than the European stars in training, but he knew they would be more formidable on race day.
"I had no idea what it meant to win an Olympic medal," Heuga says. "Although you dreamed of winning medals, and you knew you were beating these guys, the idea of winning a medal was inconceivable."
Heuga was in third place after the first run, Kidd sixth. When Heuga finished the second run and saw he was in third place behind Kidd and gold-medal winner Pepi Stiegler of Austria, he threw down a glove in disgust.
"My first reaction was that I had lost the race, I had gotten third," Heuga said. "The next reaction was, 'Gee, I won an Olympic medal, and it's never been done before."'
It wasn't long before Heuga began to think about Werner, his hero who finished eighth after falling in his last important race. Even in his moment of glory, Heuga felt "shattered in many ways" because Werner would end his legendary career without a medal at the Olympics or world championships. Heuga's reaction says a lot about Werner, but it says even more about Heuga.
"He felt Buddy ought to have the medal," Kidd remembers. "He just felt awkward, and he wanted to give Buddy his medal because he deserved it more than we did."
Heuga and Werner were roommates at the Olympics, and Heuga agonized over what would happen when he walked into their room with his medal. He was relieved when he arrived and Werner wasn't there. Werner had gone to dinner with his wife.
"I did not know what I was going to say to him," Heuga says.
Werner was killed two months later in an avalanche in Switzerland. Had he lived, Werner would have become director of skiing at Jackson Hole resort. That job went instead to Stiegler, whose daughter Resi is now a promising young racer on the U.S. Ski Team.
Pepi Stiegler was diagnosed with MS in the early 1990s.
Heuga competed in the 1968 Grenoble Olympics, finishing seventh in slalom and 10th in giant slalom, but he already was beginning to experience symptoms of MS. He was diagnosed with the disease in 1970.
He was able to ski conventionally until five or six years ago. Now he skis while seated in a "bi-ski," a chair mounted with two parabolic skis.
"I really love it," Heuga says.
Heuga, Kidd and Beattie had a celebration in Steamboat this month to mark the 40th anniversary of Innsbruck. With 18 inches of fresh powder blanketing Mount Werner, they took a trip down Buddy's Run, named after their old friend and mentor.
"Jimmie just had a big grin on his face, powder streaming up in his
face," Kidd said. "We had an absolutely great time."
Copyright © 2004, Denver Post