By Larry Zimmer, KOA Radio, Retired
“Jimmie Heuga was a champion in every sense of the word – as an athlete and as a person -any way you want to measure him.”
Words from his Olympic teammate, Bill Marlot, a member of the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame as are other teammates, Billy Kidd and Wallace “Buddy” Werner and Coach Bob Beattie. They are a special group.
Kidd and Heuga won the first men’s Olympic alpine skiing medals for the United States in 1964 at Innsbruck – Kidd the silver and Heuga the bronze. They were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in February 1968.
Heuga won the NCAA slalom championships wearing University of Colorado colors and was a two-time champion on the World Cup tour.
Jimmie was the son of Basque immigrants. His father worked at the Palisades, a ski area near Lake Tahoe, and had Jimmie on skis at age 2. At age 5, he was skiing runs at Squaw Valley. After he won the junior and senior slalom titles, Beattle brought him up to the U.S. Olympic team at age 15. He qualified for the 1960 Olympics at Squaw Valley, but it was rules he was too young to compete.
While training for the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, Heuga began having trouble controlling his skis and felt his legs giving away. He developed vision problems and numbness. It was the onset of Multiple Sclerosis which would define the rest of his life.
He was told to avoid physical activity and let the disease take its course. Jimmie began to challenge this and added exercise and physical activity, including skiing, to his daily routine. He is credited with changing the treatment of MS. He proved that rigorous activity, determination, goal setting and a positive attitude improved and extended the life of MS patients.
Heuga was on a mission to raise money to fund MS research and establish exercise programs. He borrowed a helicopter from Ross Perot and enticed some of the world’s top skiers to join him in Alaska to set a new record for the most vertical feet in one day. They raised $400,000 and the next year $1 million. The Jimmie Heuga Express was born and events were staged in ski areas throughout North America. The proceeds helped fund a study at the University of Utah which proved the benefit of exercise for people with MS.
Jimmie’s teammate and good friend, Billy Kidd, said, “Jimmie took a negative and turned it around. His life is an inspiration.”
The Jimmie Heuga Express morphed into the Jimmie Heuga Foundation and the current organization, Can Do Multiple Sclerosis.
Heuga is in the National Ski Hall of Fame, the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, and the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame.
As to that positive attitude, Jimmie said, “I was lucky to have MS. If I hadn’t. I would not have met my wife, had three healthy boys and had dinner at the White House.”