BOULDER — Former University of Colorado skier and Olympic bronze medalist Jimmie Heuga passed away here Monday afternoon, 46 years to the day he won one of the first two medals in United States men’s Olympic ski team history.
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1970 after displaying symptoms for a year, he courageously fought the disease for almost four decades before succumbing after some recent respiratory problems. He was 66.
One of four skiers from Colorado to participate in the 1964 Winter Olympics at Innsbruck, Austria, he won the bronze medal in the slalom. The coach of the U.S. team was Bob Beattie, also head coach of the CU ski team, and Heuga was one of four CU skiers on the U.S. squad, along with Billy Kidd (who won the silver in the slalom), Buddy Werner and Bill Marolt. This group, with Jean Saubert (female) from Oregon, is largely credited with putting U.S. skiing on the so-called international map. Werner was on the cover of Sports Illustrated the previous week leading up to the Olympics, for January 27, 1964; Heuga and Kidd graced the cover four years later for the same (February 5, 1968).
Kidd mentioned Monday night that Heuga passed away shortly after 1 p.m., the irony there being that the slalom back on February 8, 1964 commenced at ... 1 p.m. “I’ll always remember that day, the excitement when we found out we finished 2-3 behind (Josef) Stiegler (Austria). Only our parents and Bob Beattie thought we had a chance to win a medal.&rdquo Stiegler won in a two-run time of 2:11.13, with Kidd timed at 2:11.27 and Heuga at 2:11.52.
Werner, Heuga and Kidd were the first CU athletes to ever appear on the legendary magazine’s cover.
Kidd’s and Huega’s medals the first two skiing ever captured by U.S. males; Saubert was a double medalist that year (silver in GS, bronze in slalom) to give the United States four in 1964. Gretchen Fraser had won the first medals for the U.S. in the 1948 games at St. Moritz, Switzerland, with Andrea Mead Lawrence winning two gold in Oslo in 1952.
An interesting side note is that those were the last Olympics where the equipment included wooden skis, leather boots, and bindings that Kidd said, “were so bad that you had to wind things so tight that you’d rather break your leg than lose your chance at the Olympics.” By 1968, plastic boots and fiberglass skis were the norm.
Marolt said Monday that when “Heuga needed to be great, he’d be great.” The greatest example of that might have been that slalom performance at Innsbruck. When facing the world’s best, starting in the 24th position is not exactly ideal. To rise from the 24th spot and to claim the bronze is not something readily accomplished on any level in alpine skiing.
Heuga also skied in the 1968 Winter Olympics at Grenoble, France, before retiring to enter coaching. At the same time, he eventually finished his CU degree, earning a B.A. in Political Science in 1973. He was inducted into the United States National Ski Hall of Fame in 1976 , the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1987, the University of Colorado Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000 (the school’s third overall class, only six athletes went in before him), and the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame in 2008.
A three-time letterman at CU, Heuga skied before the sport fully acknowledged All-Americans, and was the 1963 NCAA champion in the slalom. In addition to being a two-time Olympic team member, he was also a member of two championship United State Ski Teams (1962, 1966), skiing for the national team for 10 years.
His bio on the Ski Hall of Fame site mentions that he was, “regarded as a 'phenomenal kid’ with enormous self confidence on skis. At the age of 17 he performed well at the 1959 U.S. Olympic Trials but was not selected for lack of experience. Undeterred, he was invited to travel with the team to Europe for pre-Olympic training and gained valuable experience racing against Europe’s best. He earned a spot of the 1962 FIS team for the World Championships at Chamonix where he took fifth in the slalom-downhill combined, and placed 12th place in slalom and giant slalom.”
He appeared in a Warren Miller ski film when was just nine, and in 1958, at 15, he was named to the U.S. Ski Team. He remains the youngest man ever on its roster.
After being diagnosed with MS, he battled symptoms most of his adult life and has been an inspiration for many. In 1983, he founded the Jimmie Heuga Center for Multiple Sclerosis in Edwards, Colo., offering physical conditioning and consulting services to help people with disabilities and personal challenges. It is now called Can Do Multiple Sclerosis and has had a profound effect on numerous people’s lives.
Although confined to a wheelchair for basically what amounted to the second half of his life, he still remained active and involved in the Boulder area community. CU’s current ski coach, Richard Rokos, became his personal coach and Jimmie defied the odds (and the experts) and on a specially crafted three-wheeler, started to do laps around the school’s track located on east campus. And despite his MS affliction, in his own words he still “skied aggressively” when he was 63. He spent the last 12 years of his life at the Balfour Retirement Community in Louisville (Colo.), but still attended two or three CU football games every season, one of his passions. He only recently was moved to Boulder Community Hospital, where he passed away Monday.
Heuga was born Sept. 22, 1943 in Tahoe City, Calif., the son of Lucille and Pascal Heuga, a Basque immigrant who ran the cable car at Squaw Valley. He is survived by his wife, Debbie, three sons, Wilder, 20, Blaze, 18 (both CU students) and Winston, 15, and a daughter from a previous marriage, Kelly Hamill of Seattle. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Jimmie Heuga Endowment Fund, 27 Main Street East, Suite 303, Edwards, CO 81632. Details on services are pending.
What they are saying about Jimmie Heuga:
Bob Beattie, CU/U.S. Ski Team Head Coach
“When I think of Jimmie, one word comes to mind: toughness. Absolutely — toughness, all the way through. He was the toughest athlete I’ve ever known, mentally and physically. He could climb up to the top of the mountain faster than anybody, and he was just as tough coming down mentally. I am certain that’s what allowed him to live so long with such a debilitating disease.
“One year when he signed up for classes, he had signed up for the toughest classes I’d ever seen. There was one term where he wanted to take courses like biology, physics, chemistry and calculus all at the same time. I had to take him to the side and tell him to slow down a little bit. But that’s the way he was about everything.
“We were all very close, though I’ll always be about 10 years older then those boys, Heuga, Kidd, Marolt. I think that’s one of the great things about all of his classmates, they’ve all remained very close through the years. Skiing may be an individual sport, but definitely within a team aspect. I think that shows through a lot.”
Bill Marolt, CU/Olympic Teammate
“Jimmie was a great friend and the consummate competitor. “I knew him from the time we were 13 years old, so that’s more than 50 years. We were great friends this whole period of time, starting first as competitors and youngsters through the world championships and then Olympics. When I think of him, he was this 5-foot-6, 140-pound guy who didn’t back down from anybody, but pound per pound, absolutely without question I’ve never seen a tougher guy, physically, mentally, emotionally.
“He had the kind of toughness you need to be a champion. He could rise to the challenge and when he needed to be great, he’d be great. He was a champion in every sense of the word. He was a champion as an athlete, as a person and any way you want to measure him. He was one of those rare people who come along who impacts everybody around him, and he made a difference to a lot of us. Jimmie’s dad was a Basque, from the region of France closest to Spain. The world is full of nicknames, but (the late) Fred Casotti (CU sports information director) gave him one of the great ones: The Bounding Basque,” and that really exemplifies what Jimmie was and how we’ll remember him: this little guy who was full of energy and buzzing around all the time. Whether it was the slalom, dancing the twist at the Tul (Tulagi’s, a famous Boulder student hangout) or simply life in general.”
“Jimmie was a great Buffalo. Later in his life, Richard (Rokos) became one of the real heroes in Jimmie’s life. He was always there for him as a friend and a personal coach.He cared deeply for Jimmie and I know Jimmie was comforted that he still had that close a tie to the program after Fred passed away.”
Mike Bohn, CU Athletic Director
“Jimmie’s competitive spirit coupled with his resolve to overcome adversity will remain as an inspiration to me and the so many people that he touched. He faced adversity with such great grace and humility.”
Richard Rokos, CU Head Ski Coach & Longtime Friend
“Being young ski racers we all were hanging on news from 1964 Olympic Games in Innsbruck which was actually so close to our home yet “behind the curtain.” (At the time, Rokos was a youth in Czechoslovakia, under USSR control.) For good reason we were favoring a few American boys they came to stronghold of Alpine skiing, Austria, to challenge the best in the world. Most appealing was the fact that those guys were viewed by ski aristocrats as a bunch of cowboys coming to Europe to get a bloody nose. It did not happen, the underdogs won and we were happy because being underdogs as well we felt a close affiliation.
“Jump some thirty years; one of those boys (Bill Marolt) hired me. By accident and God’s design I did end up with those guys in the same bundle and that is when I met Jimmie. They all were the same as thirty years back, achievers in charge. Jimmie was different because he was an underdog to his disease and that was most appealing to me. We became friends, which in the sport of skiing is actually the norm, and I realized that Jimmie was willing to do anything possible to beat the disease and maintain the competitive edge.
“An unbelievable opportunity for me; Jimmie could not walk but through our mutual friend Tyler Hamilton and combination of fundraising events Jimmie got his three-wheeler (adult bicycle). I was suddenly the self-appointed coach to the most dedicated athlete I could dream of with all expert and doctor opinions against us. It did not matter that Jimmie could not walk, he could move with his own power and could challenge himself on any given day. He started training and improved his strength. We set his parameters: CU track, no gear, no breaks. In three years he rose to athletic stardom. We were celebrating almost weekly victories. You read a lot of inspirational stories every day but to be so close and part of it is incredible. Jimmie gave me a tenfold feeling a coach can have when things with an athlete goes right. He was willing to go on track any day, any time and challenge his previous record.
“With athletes we talk often about commitment, dedication, perseverance, drive, etc. To see it in form Jimmie presented all those qualities that can be described only by his own words, “I am living a simple dream.”Jimmie was a dreamer with the biggest heart and I am sure he is already training and setting records in Heavenly Kingdom.”
Billy Kidd, Teammate/Lifelong Friend
"He was the personification of determination and never giving up — he inspired so many people. Jimmie's accomplishments on the race course will forever be remembered. But it's his accomplishments and drive in the fight against MS that will continue to help so many people live their lives. His life is an inspiration.
“Jimmie and I were 20-year olds in 1964, and the main guys on the team were really Buddy Werner and Chuck Ferries. Only our parents and Bob Beattie thought we had a chance to win a medal. If only one of us had medaled, not being one of the top guns, many would have written it off as a fluke. But when both Jimmie and I won medals, outsiders really started looking different at the U.S. Ski Team.”
Scott Blackmun, U.S. Olympic Committee CEO
"Jimmie Heuga was one of our greatest Olympians and one of our greatest Americans. As a skier he was among the best in the world. But, as a human being later in his life, he made a difference for those suffering from a terrible disease. He will be sorely missed by our Olympic Family and by everyone he touched in his life."
Larry Zimmer, Former KOA Sports Director/Ski Enthusiast/Voice of the Buffs
“Jimmie Heuga was one of the bravest people that I knew. He refused to let MS get him down. In the early stages he still got on skis and even after being confined to a wheelchair continued to make appearances for his foundation and at fund raisers to fight MS. He never lost his love of life, the infectious smile and the warm personality that made him special.”