Denver Jimmie Heuga achieved immortality for helping to make U.S. ski racing history in 1964, but for those who knew and loved him, the memory of what he represented after his competitive career was over will be cherished even more.
Heuga, 66, died at Boulder Community Hospital on Monday after a gradually debilitating 40-year battle with multiple sclerosis. While it is difficult to overstate the significance of the history he and Billy Kidd achieved 46 years ago in Innsbruck — becoming the first American men to win Olympic Alpine medals — the grace and boundless humility with which Heuga fought MS overshadowed even that.
In 1984, he founded the Jimmie Heuga Center in Edwards to help “re-animate” MS patients through exercise. The nonprofit organization now is known as Can Do Multiple Sclerosis. He skied in a sit-ski until he no longer could, and continued to train like an athlete even in the last years of his life, regularly riding his hand-cycle on the track at the University of Colorado.
“Obviously, I admire him for what he did in the Olympics, but even more for what he did in his life after that,” Kidd said Monday after rushing from Steamboat Springs to Boulder to be at his friend’s side. “There are very few athletes who accomplish so much on the playing field, and then go on to accomplish even more after the competition is over. Jimmie was rare in that.”
Heuga and Kidd were recruited to CU in the early 1960s by Bob Beattie, who soon became the first full-time U.S. Ski Team coach.
“Jimmie Heuga was one of the toughest guys I’ve ever known,” Beattie recalled Monday. “He was never to be defeated, he was never to be denied.”
Heuga came from Squaw Valley, Calif., Kidd from Stowe, Vt. They remained close throughout the years, united by their unique moment in Olympic history and their long, deep friendship.
“He’s not suffering from MS anymore,” Kidd said. “He had such a fighting spirit that went back to our ski racing days. I think it’s what made him so successful as a ski racer and also with his fight against MS.”
With Kidd’s help, Heuga brought his MS fundraisers to Steamboat every year. One of this year’s events, a bluegrass jam and silent auction, was held two weeks ago at the Depot Art Center. All proceeds went to Can Do Multiple Sclerosis. The Vertical Express for MS, another Can Do fundraiser, is scheduled for March 7 at the Steamboat Ski Area.
“Jimmie loved coming to Steamboat because he had so many friends here, starting with Buddy Werner,” Kidd said Monday. “Jimmie often spoke of Buddy’s influence in his life, after they first met in Sun Valley in 1955, when Buddy took Jimmie under his wing during the Harriman Cup Race. His closest friends were his teammates from University of Colorado and the U.S. Ski Team, including Jim “Moose” Barrows, Hank Kashiwa, Spider Sabich and many others.”
American women had won Olympic medals — Andrea Mead Lawrence won two gold medals in 1952, in fact — but the men still were looking for their breakthrough when the world gathered in Innsbruck for the 1964 games. Beattie had promised the American men were ready, but they failed in downhill and giant slalom. They had one more chance — in a slalom race the same day the Beatles made their U.S. debut on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Kidd took silver, Heuga the bronze.
“It meant everything,” Beattie said. “First of all, we had promised the United States a lot of medals, and this was the last day. There was a lot of pressure on us to produce.”
Heuga had a hard time wrapping his mind around the idea.
“I had no idea what it meant to win an Olympic medal,” Heuga recalled in 2004. “Although you dreamed of winning medals, and you knew you were beating these guys (in other races), the idea of winning a medal was inconceivable.”
Elated as he was to earn that medal, Heuga soon felt “shattered” when he thought about his roommate, Steamboat’s Buddy Werner, the greatest male ski racer the U.S. had produced but leaving empty handed.
“I did not know what I was going to say to him,” Heuga recalled.
In recent years, current CU coach Richard Rokos devoted countless hours to Heuga, getting him transported from a Boulder County nursing home to the CU track for his workouts and time trials.
“He never lost his competitive spirit,” Rokos said. “He tried to do his best, and when he didn’t do as well as he was hoping for, he was disappointed. He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t run, he couldn’t do anything else, but this was the way he could present himself as a competitive athlete.
“An icon is gone.”
The Steamboat Today contributed to this story.
To reach John Meyer, call 303-954-1616 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.