A story in yesterday's editions of The Washington Post said that an American had never won an Olympic medal in skiing until Jimmie Heuga and Billy Kidd did so in 1964. They were the first U.S. men to win skiing medals; Gretchen Fraser won an Olympic skiing medal in the women's slalom in 1948.
Jimmie Heuga was 20 years old when he won an Olympic bronze medal on a snow-covered Austrian alp. It was 1964 and the United States had never before won an Olympic medal in skiing. Heuga and teammate Billy Kidd, who earned a silver medal on the same slalom course at Innsbruck, gave America its first international claim to mountains in winter.
Heuga is 38 and still skiing. But the slopes he skis now are intermediate runs. And he skis them with caution. There is nothing like multiple sclerosis, says Heuga, to make a mountain look mean.
"I don't have the coordination to even fall right," says the former California Kid, who still has the blue eyes, thick brown hair and wide smile that were so appealing on ABC. But now he also has a disease of the central nervous system that can make buttoning his shirt an exercise in frustration.
Heuga has had MS since 1967. The normal course of the disease which progressively short circuits the central nervous system, would have left Heuga in braces or a wheelchair by now. But Heuga refused to take that route. He disobeyed his doctors who told him to give up strenuous exercise and fought MS with the kind of stamina and success that has astonished neurologists but surprised his close friends not even a little.
"You can't give in to disease or it will take you down," says Heuga, who gets up at 6 a.m. every morning to begin a regimen that includes bicycle riding, swimming and mountain skiing. Last year he also traveled 100,000 miles to deliver to others with MS a direct command. "I tell them to get up off their butts and not use MS as a crutch."
The life and times of Jimmie Heuga are the stuff that television producers love to shape into bad melodrama, with heaping portions of schmaltzy courage and wet-eyed pity. Again Heuga refuses to be typecast.
"I'm not a tragic person and I'm not a patient. Just because I have a disease doesn't mean I can't be healthy," says Heuga, who has more positive attitude than the leader at a sales seminar and does not suffer well-meaning fools gladly.
"I had lunch with a woman recently who said how tragic it is that a world-class athlete should be stricken with disease at the prime of his life," said Heuga during an interview beside a swimming pool at the base of the Sierra Nevadas where he was born. He had skied those mountains for five hours earlier in the day and had just finished a 600-meter swim. "I was insulted. That presumes that the best days of my life are over and nothing could be further from the truth."
Bob Beattie, who coached the U.S. Olympic ski teams in both the 1964 and 1968 Olympics, says Heuga's response to MS has not surprised him. "Jimmie was very well prepared to fight this disease," says Beattie, who thinks Heuga did more with the talent he had than any other member of those teams.
"He was one of the toughest competitors I've ever seen in any sport from soccer games to playing football," said Kidd, now the director of skiing at the Steamboat Springs (Colo.) Ski Area. "I think the word that describes him is incredible."
Heuga is remembered as a prodigy on skis at Squaw Valley, the granddaddy of the ski mountains that surround Lake Tahoe, where his 73-year-old father still runs a ski lift. At 15 he qualified for the U.S. Olympic team that competed at Squaw in the 1960 Olympics. Four years later he was in Innsbruck, the fourth-ranked skier on an American team that was expected to be no better than respectable.
"Our way of training was so crude," said Heuga, who was a full-time University of Colorado student at the time. "I guess we surprised some people."
The victories by Heuga and Kidd did for American alpine skiing what the last Olympics did for American hockey. It also marked the end of an era. From that time on, competitive skiing became a year-round pursuit that was as much business as sport.
In 1968 Heuga made the cover of Sports Illustrated as one of America's best hopes for winter gold in Japan. But by then the disease had already begun its damage.
"In '67 I was experiencing the symptoms--blurred vision, loss of coordination and numbness in my legs," said Heuga. "But I didn't dwell on it. I was trained to ignore the negatives."
Despite his handicaps, Heuga finished 10th in the slalom and seventh in the giant slalom. A few Olympics earlier, that showing would have been reason to celebrate. Heuga knew something was wrong.
It wasn't until 1970 that Heuga was diagnosed as having MS, a disease that afflicts an estimated 500,000 people in the United States. Ironically, Heuga was told the news the day after he had run five miles in under 25 minutes. The experts told him to retire from sport. They likened his body to a battery that was constantly discharging and warned that his life could be shortened by physical stress.
For two years Heuga followed that prescription. He lost the ability to run. His muscle tone deteriorated. The less he did the worse he felt. It was not a life an Olympic champion was trained to accept.
"I finally just said screw it. To me the quality of life is far more important than the days I have to live," said Heuga. Maybe the hardest thing he did was relearn to ski. For months he took awkward falls on the bunny slope. Even more awkward were the encounters with old friends who didn't know of his disease. But never, says Heuga, did he allow himself to contrast the athlete he was with the one he used to be.
"I'm still swimming in lanes with pregnant women," said Heuga, a wry smile lighting up his sturdy face. "But I don't worry about that kind of thing. Heck, some days are diamond and some are stone."