Heuga feels at home during visit to Squaw | SierraSun.com
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Heuga feels at home during visit to Squaw

Erick Studenicka

Jimmie Heuga, 53, grew up skiing at Squaw Valley and made U.S. Olympic history in 1964 when he and Billy Kidd became the first Americans to win Olympic medals in alpine skiing. Heuga went on to participate in the 1968 Olympics, but his international racing career came to a halt in 1970 when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system which usually afflicts young adults and causes the loss of the ability to make smooth, rapid and coordinated movements.

At the time of Heuga’s diagnosis, the prescribed treatment for MS was contrary to Heuga’s active lifestyle. After several years of following his doctors’ orders to remain inactive and sedentary, Heuga designed his own exercise program and “reanimated” himself. In 1984, Heuga founded The Jimmie Heuga Center, which focuses on developing lifestyle strategies for MS patients which includes exercise, nutrition, self-management and social interaction. Now in its 13th year, the Jimmie Heuga Center has improved the health of more than 1,000 people with MS.

In 1995, Heuga was named to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. The council advises the President and the Secretary of Health and Human Services in matters concerning participation in sports and physical activity. The appointment has given Heuga an opportunity to expand his leadership role in improving the health conditions of people with chronic conditions.

Heuga, who currently lives in Vail Valley, Colo., with his wife Debbie and sons Wilder, Blaze and Winston, was in Olympic Valley Saturday to attend the Alpen Wine Fest, a fund-raiser for the Jimmie Heuga Center. (Another fund-raiser for the center, Jimmie Heuga’s Toyota Mountain Bike Express, is scheduled for Northstar Sept. 7, while the Ski Express is scheduled this winter at Squaw Valley.)

Between chatting with his friends and keeping an eye on his sons at the Alpen Wine Fest, Heuga discussed with the Sierra Sun his ties to Squaw Valley and his views on the importance of exercise.

Sierra Sun: You haven’t been at the Alpen Wine Fest for several years. Is there a special reason you decided to come out this year for the event?

Jimmie Heuga: It’s been three years since I’ve been here for this event. I decided to come out with my family this year to see my parents, brothers and many of my aunts and uncles who live in the Bay Area. My daughter, Kelly, is also here from Seattle, so it’s kind of like a family reunion – it’s a great chance to see relatives and to see old friends.

SS: You must have some great memories of growing up here?

JH: I had my formative years right here. I started skiing when I was two with the Lake Tahoe Ski Club. We first skied at Granlibakken and then moved over to Squaw Valley when it opened in 1949.

SS: Is the fact that you “grew up” at Squaw part of the reason that the ski express comes to Squaw Valley each year.

JH: I’ve always had a fondness for Squaw Valley and I also knew I could go to friends here to get behind the effort to get us funded. The event has grown well here over the last 7-8 years.

SS: How many different locations currently host the Heuga Toyota Express mountain biking and ski events?

JH: We have mountain biking events in 18 states and ski express events at 30 locations in 21 states.

SS: Exercise wasn’t a big part of MS therapy back when you were first diagnosed. How has that changed?

JH: Through sports and competition, I developed an appreciation for my health and was very aware when the physicians told me to avoid any kind of physical or emotional stress; they said it would incite my condition. It was like a prescription to get out of life. Life involves both physical and emotional stress – you’ve got to balance your checkbook and use your head a little bit.

I did follow that initial advice and found that by sitting and doing nothing, I was getting out of shape and I became aware I was losing my health.

I began to draw the distinction between disease and health. A person really has an obligation to take charge of their health. It’s been shown that the three greatest health risks are heart disease, stroke and cancer – just because a person may have an unrelated condition like MS doesn’t mean they will avoid the onset of these conditions. Everyone has an obligation to themself for their own personal quality of life and to assume responsibility for their own health.

We’re recognized within the MS community, but we’re also recognized within the health field because we’ve shown how important health is to the quality of life, no matter what the circumstances may be. I serve on the President’s Council because I made this distinction in the health agency field between disease and health and shown that a person can really impact the quality of their life by taking control of their health.

SS: Do you feel that making known the success of your program has influenced the way other people treat their own chronic conditions?

JH: When I first was diagnosed with MS, the big effort was to find the cause and cure for MS. I hope they do find the cause and cure to all of the maladies in the world, but, quite frankly, it hasn’t happened, and quite frankly, a cure to MS is not a cure to life. No one’s getting out alive.

What is really important is how we lead our lives. We can do so much, no matter what our circumstances, whether we have MS or trouble balancing our checkbook. We’re all in the same ballgame together when it comes to pursuing our health and quality of life.

Pursuing one’s health also has an emotional impact of providing a direction; health programs give people an anchor when dealing with uncertainties that confront them. They can impact their life by having a positive influence over self-esteem, self-image and self-confidence. In addition to the emotional benefits, there are also the physical benefits.

The program can give people with MS a sense of direction and control in their life. For example, I don’t know what’s going to happen each day, but I do know that one hour a day is mine and I can have a sense of control and direction that no one can take from me.

SS: So your main point is that everyone is in control of their own physical health, even if they have a chronic condition?

JH: Exactly. I’m not dependent on a doctor or physical therapist to come rub my muscles for me once a week. I can take charge of my health seven days a week. I assume responsibility for my own health.

SS: Why did you choose mountain biking as your summer version of the ski express?

JH: We think there is a tie-in between skiers and mountain bikers. I also felt ski areas would get behind us, because they also need activities. If we can provide an activity for them, we can enhance their attendance in the off season. We probably raise 90 percent of our money through the ski express series, so mountain biking allows us to stem the tide during our off season and maintain our cash flow.

SS: Are you still interested in alpine skiing and follow the U.S. ski team?

JH: I do follow them, but not to the extent that I once did. My good friend is the president of the ski team, so I follow them through him. Life changes and I now have new opportunities and challenges, so my focus and emphasis is in the health agency area.

People should know that each ski and mountain bike express sets aside a percentage to underwrite scholarships for people with MS in these areas, so it’s not like we’re coming into Squaw Valley, taking the money and then running. We set aside 25 percent for scholarships to underwrite people in financial need from the Tahoe area so that they can come to our program.

SS: Do you foresee the Olympics ever coming back to Squaw Valley?

JH: I’d have to say no. I went up and saw the museum at High Camp and I have to say, I have some fond memories recalling those games and people. My father ran the Zamboni at the hockey games and during figure skating. But thinking back to how small those games were and how intimate the Olympics were, and then comparing them to the last Olympics I was at, in Lillehammer, it was absolutely huge. The idea of it coming back to Squaw Valley would be mind boggling.


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