Hard as it may be for young readers to imagine, the United States has not always been noted for its World Class skiers. In fact it wasn’t until 1964, at the 9th Winter Olympiad at Innsbruck, that a member of the Men’s Alpine Ski Team finally won the most coveted of awards – an Olympic medal.
Details of the frequent drubbings suffered by U.S. male skiers in the first eight Winter Olympics can be found at the end of this story. Meanwhile, let’s turn the spotlight on James Frederic Heuga, better known as Jimmie, the athlete destined to end the medal drought and bring glory to U.S. Men’s Alpine skiing as well as to his hometown, a little place called Tahoe City.
Jimmie was the younger son of Pascal and Lucille Heuga, from whom he had inherited not only a better-than-average athletic ability, but a determination that met challenges head-on, and would not be defeated. These attributes would prove a winning combination in both his skiing and his life.
Jimmie’s father, Pascal Heuga, was a Basque, born in 1909 in the French Pyrenees. Though short of stature, he was a man of many skills and accomplishments. His childhood, such as it was, officially ended at the age of nine when his single mother apprenticed him to the town butcher, and in 1920, when his uncle sent him money for the trip to America, he came. By the time the self-reliant Pascal reached legal age, he had earned his bread as a shepherd, a bartender and a bootlegger. In 1931, while working as a cook at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, he met Lucille Dutton, an employee in the seasonal Post Office at Chinquapin, in Yosemite Valley. A year later, when Lucille was hired to a full-time position in Washington, D.C., Pascal (who had by now become “Pete”) followed.
In the late 1930s, the prospect of War work led the Heugas, now married, back to California, and they spent the Duration in the Bay Area, where Pete found work in the Richmond Shipyards and Lucille earned a second paycheck as a secretary. Sons Robert and Jimmy were born in San Francisco, Robert in 1939 and Jimmie on September 22, 1943.
When the War ended, Pete and Lucille were eager for a change of scenes and the chance to start their own venture in a place where their boys could grow up in the fresh air. In 1946 they purchased a small grocery in Lake Forest (two miles northeast of Tahoe City), fronting on what was then still part of U.S. Highway 28 (now better known as North Lake Boulevard), and in March 1947, when the tiny, mostly seasonal community was granted a Class 4 Post Office, Lucille became the Postmaster. Pete’s sociable nature helped make their store a local gathering place, and the business grew accordingly.
When the Heugas arrived in Lake Forest, the region’s organized ski activity was just coming back to life. During the War, skiing had been little more than a means of winter transportation, but as the local population grew rapidly in the post-war boom, several visionaries were ready to bet on the idea that skiing could be a business. The first such venture was Granlibakken, opened by Kjell “Rusty” Rustad and his wife Marion on January 22, 1949. Later that same year, on Thanksgiving Day, a ski area called Squaw Valley got underway.
Among Squaw Valley’s first lift-ops was Pete Heuga, who had hired on several months prior to the Resort’s opening. By this time, the Heugas’ older son Robert was already enrolled at Tahoe Lake School, but Jimmie was too young to attend, so Pete took him to work.
The reputation of Squaw Valley’s magnificent mountain spread quickly, attracting noted athletes from all over the skiing world. Among these was Emile Allais, first Director of Squaw Valley’s Ski School. Allais was a French skiing legend, having won a bronze medal in the Men’s Combined at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch, followed by gold medals in the Downhill, Slalom and Combined in the 1937 World Championships at Chamonix, France. Allais has often been called the “Father of Modern Skiing” for his development and popularization of the technique of keeping the skiis parallel.
On his arrival in Squaw Valley Allais knew little English, but as he and Heuga became better acquainted, Allais began to increase his fluency. In the meantime, the athletic potential of Heuga’s son needed no translation, and soon it was arranged that Allais would become Jimmie’s coach.
Under the tutelage of France’s seasoned Olympian, Jimmie’s skiing prowess continued to grow. Allais had a reputation as a daredevil, and Jimmie soon gained the same reputation, moving steadily up through the ranks of local ski tykes with his crouched, go-for-broke style.
On February 12, 1959, four months after his 15th birthday, Jimmie was named to the FWSA Men’s Alpine Ski Team, and two weeks later he finished 14th in the North American Alpine Championships held at Squaw Valley. In November 1960, as the young skier was about to embark on a winter of intensive ski training in Europe, a Reno reporter noted that he had “won every junior race title in the far western United States before he was 16, and last year became a contender for national titles.”
In the next several seasons, Jimmie’s ski success continued. In March 1961, he won the Harriman Cup at Sun Valley, Idaho, and the following year, at the Lauberhorn Ski Tournament in Wengen, Switzerland, his 9th place was highest among the American team, with Billy Kidd a distant 23rd. A month later, Jimmie was named to the U.S. Alpine Team, and he promptly justified his selection with a 12th at Chamonix in a driving snowstorm.
In January 1963 in Colorado, Jimmie took a fourth in the Olympic Ski Trials. December 1963 found him again in Europe, where he took time to write a letter home to his parents:
In the races at Obstaufen, Germany on January 3-4, 1964 Jimmie placed 3rd in the GS ahead of Werner, and the following week at Val D’Isere, France he placed 6th in the slalom race won by Werner. Next was the Olympics, and Jimmie’s chance to bring glory to himself and the little community he called home. Americans did not fare well in the early competition, and as the Games neared their close, further success rested on the shoulders of a few young men.
On February 10 Ted Smits, a sportswriter for the San Bernardino Sun, summed up the story: “After a frustrating start, the United States closed on a high note when a pair of 20-year-olds, Billy Kidd of Stowe, Vt., and Jim Heuga of Tahoe City, Calif., won the silver and bronze in Saturday’s men’s slalom.”
Tahoe City (and of course Lake Forest) erupted in a joy that could not be suppressed, and the Tahoe City World heralded the event from every angle. Rod Stollery, a dyed-in-the-wool sports fan and columnist for the paper, sang Jimmie’s praises as he offered some interesting observations about his connections to the local community:
In the following issue, Stollery’s enthusiasm for an event in honor of Jimmie and his achievement was gaining strength, and the community began to prepare for a rousing Welcome Home!
Unfortunately, just as the festivities were about to get underway, shocking news from Europe put the celebration on hold. Jimmie Heuga had grown up admiring the ski skills of Wallace Jerold “Buddy” Werner, more than seven years his senior and a champion of international fame. They had become teammates and good friends and, ironically, it was that friendship that caused the postponement of Jimmie’s welcome home. On April 12, a news bulletin with a St. Moritz dateline announced the accidental death of Werner in an avalanche. Plans for Heuga’s homecoming had to be postponed a week, while he flew to Steamboat Springs to serve as one of Werner’s pallbearers.
But Tahoe City’s celebration of its home-grown hero finally took place, with a snowstorm to set the scene and a host of dignitaries to lend an official air. Squaw Valley might have been “discovered” in 1960, but 1964 belonged to Tahoe City (and, of course, Lake Forest).
In the next three years, Heuga was constantly ranked among the world’s top skiers, and was again named to the U.S. Alpine Team in 1965. At the World Alpine Championships in Portillo, Chile in 1966, he was the top U.S. men’s skier, and his strong showings in subsequent meets continued to give hope to U.S. medal chances at the 1968 Olympics.
But just about the time Heuga seemed at the top of his skiing game, he began to notice a change. “I was going flat, and I didn’t realize why,” he later remembered. As the Olympic year began, he seemed unable to rise to his demonstrated potential. In January 1968, he was described by one sportswriter as “a notoriously slow starter,” and several weeks later, another called him a “February skier.” February arrived, and with it the 10th Winter Olympiad at Grenoble. But Heuga could not recapture the performance he had given at Innsbruck, and managed only a 7th in the GS, more than 2-1/2 seconds behind gold medalist Killy. “I just didn’t race as well as I like,” he observed. “The course didn’t bother me. It was soft, but I didn’t mind. I’m only discontented with myself.”
In the months to come, the ski legend would have more cause for personal discontent, as vision problems and numbness in his hands signaled that something was wrong. As his coordination, strength and vision began to ebb, he sought out the advice of an ophthalmologist, who referred him to a neurologist who, much to his surprise, diagnosed him with Multiple Sclerosis.
In a life devoted to athletics, Heuga had always maintained a regular exercise routine, and was, as far as he knew, in excellent health. But as his symptoms persisted and grew worse, the truth of his diagnosis could not be ignored, and though he continued to race, he would never again stand on the Olympic podium. Regretfully, he accepted the conventional wisdom of the day, which recommended that victims of the incurable disease adopt a sedentary lifestyle to minimize the advance of the debilitating symptoms.
However, submitting to life as an invalid did not sit well with Heuga. He had always been an athlete, dedicated to activity. Though his abilities were diminished, his urge to succeed remained strong, and the discipline acquired over his competitive lifetime was perfectly suited to the challenge he now faced. As his relentless adversary continued to advance, Heuga determined to do what he could to combat its effects. Convinced that this struggle was preferable to giving up without a fight, he began to set incremental goals for himself, intent on recovering some of his lost ground.
Contrary to the expectations of most of the experts, Heuga’s self-imposed routine gradually began to show positive results, and as he slowly recovered some of his lost physical skills, he began to realize how his aggressive confrontation of Multiple Sclerosis might help others affected by it.
In 1984 the Alyeska Ski-A-Thon, filmed by ski cinematographer Warren Miller and featuring many skiers of international fame, helped solidify Jimmie’s resolve to establish an event to promote his own worthy cause: helping victims of MS achieve the most active lives possible within the limitations of their health. The first annual Squaw Valley Spring Ski-A-Thon, with Heuga as the event’s celebrity chairman, was held Sunday, April 14, 1985 and benefited the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
The public response to Jimmie’s event was enthusiastic, and the $250,000 raised went toward the establishment of the Jimmie Heuga Center in Edwards, Colorado, where the physically challenged were helped to maximize the quality of their lives through physiological and psychological therapy.
Each victim of MS is trapped in a body at war with itself, though for each person, the manifestations of the disease are unique. Over time, with knowledge gained through self-experimentation, Jimmie was able to develop a program of stress management, visualization and incremental physical progress that was beneficial to many fellow-sufferers. For the heat-intolerance characteristic of the disease, he made swimming one of his primary therapeutic activities, and developed a “cool vest” to be worn when riding his bike.
Within a few years, his fundraiser had morphed into the Jimmie Heuga Ski Express, sponsored by Mazda and involving teams from all over the country. In 1990, the event raised over half a million dollars for the Jimmie Heuga Center, meanwhile gaining new advocates for the cause.
In November 1990, World Ski Champion Tamara McKinney, after announcing her retirement from competition, accepted Jimmie’s invitation to join his organization as its official spokesperson. McKinney admired Jimmie’s cheerful, look-on-the-bright-side attitude and found fulfillment in the camaraderie and sense of “doing something truly worthwhile.” Though still on crutches as a result of a badly broken leg, she soon became, in her own words, “the junior evangelist for the Jimmie Heuga Center,” which she continued to promote for many years thereafter. She remembers Jimmie as a kind and giving soul with a good work ethic and a twinkle in his eye, whose modest upbringing had taught him compassion and humility.
Jimmie Heuga’s Ski Express, in which teams ski as many runs as possible within a prescribed time, eventually spread to 30 resorts all over the country, and as a result of the successful techniques developed by Heuga, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society was forced to rethink its prognosis for those suffering with the disease. Today, the group Jimmie founded is known as Can Do Multiple Sclerosis. Headquartered in Edwards, Colorado, it continues to further the goals first laid out over 30 years ago by the ski hero from Lake Forest.
Jimmie was finally forced to give up his courageous fight on February 8, 2010, as a result of respiratory issues related to MS. But his words live on as inspiration for all who face adversity: “You don’t need to be an athlete to be a competitor. And you’re not admitting defeat by accepting your limitations. You have to accept and use your limitations as an asset.” Jimmie certainly lived by that statement, and his determination to turn the tables on adversity continues to inspire hope in the many ‘competitors’ who follow in his celebrated track.
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A Few Words on America’s First Alpine Skiing Medals:
When Billy Kidd and Jimmy Heuga took silver and bronze medals in the Men’s Slalom in the 1964 Winter Olympics, it was the first time in the history of Men’s Olympic Alpine Racing that an American had medalled.
In 1936, at the first Winter Olympiad in Garmisch, Germany, a Floridian named Dick Durance managed 11th place in the Men’s Downhill, with teammate George Page 18th, Robert Livermore 29th and Albert Washburn 37th. In the Slalom, Durance again turned in the best American performance, finishing 8th, with George Page 14th and Robert Livermore 20th. The Women’s Team fared no better. In the Downhill, Elizabeth Woolsey tied for 14th place, followed by Helen Boughton-Leigh in 25th, Clarita Heath 30th and Mary Bird 33rd. Clearly there was room for some improvement.
Before another four years passed, international politics intervened, cancelling the Winter Games in 1940 and again in 1944. When Olympic competition resumed in 1948 at St. Moritz, Gretchen Frasher became the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in Alpine Skiing, earning a Gold in the Slalom and a Silver in the Combined. Four years later in Oslo, Andrea Mead-Lawrence brought home a pair of Golds in the Slalom and Giant Slalom.
At Cortina in 1956, no American woman made it to the platform, but in 1960 at Squaw Valley, the Women’s Team took three Silvers, Penny Pitou placing 2nd in the Downhill and GS and Betsy Snite earning a 2nd in the Slalom.
It would be another four years before a man on the U.S. Alpine team finally earned an Olympic Medal.
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