Skiing: Looking ahead

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As another ski season gradually melts away, it’s easy to look back both at this season and seasons past. I was reminded of one of my most memorable interviews a couple of months ago when I received word of the death of Jimmy Heuga. I was writing a ski column for another paper in the 1970s and coach Tom Reynolds called me from Farmington to ask if would like to interview Jimmy Heuga. My response was simply, “Where and when.” He explained that all I had to do was pick Jimmy up at the Portland Airport and drive him to Sugarloaf, where he was scheduled for a clinic for junior racers.

It didn’t occur to me to complain that it meant driving an hour to Portland, 2½ hours to Sugarloaf and an hour and three quarters back home. All I knew was that I would have an exclusive 2½-hour interview with an Olympic medalist. In 1964, Billy Kidd won the silver medal in slalom, and Heuga finished right behind for the bronze, a much celebrated finish for the U.S. Ski Team.

Reynolds told me that Heuga had been diagnosed with MS, but he hadn’t yet announced it, so I never brought it up. When I revealed that to my editor after the story ran, he chastised me for leaving out the big part of the story. I told him I respected Heuga’s privacy and when the time came I would write the story again. As it happened I have written several times about Jimmy Heuga, mostly in this paper, but his story was not the usual MS victim’s story.

A short time after that ride, Heuga made a decision. At the time, MS sufferers were basically told to go home and live quietly. For this athlete, that didn’t last long. He told his doctors he wasn’t sick and he was going to be active. He started his own exercise program and returned to skiing.

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He teamed up with Dr. Richard Steadman in Vail to start the Jimmy Heuga Clinic for the reanimation of the physically handicapped, whether by disease or accident. At the clinic, anyone with a handicap could spend a week, their condition would be diagnosed and the team would develop a rehab program. The idea was to help them continue to be active, while doing research that would help others down the road.

Heiga not only stayed active, he married and had two children. Heuga Express days were held all over the country, with skiers gathering pledges for each run to raise money for the clinic. Heuga traveled to these events and, as long as he was able, took a few runs with the skiers.

At the first Maine Handicapped Skiing Ski-A-Thon, my team raised the most money and we won a trip to Vail. I chose to go during the Jimmy Heuga Express. At the opening reception, Bill Kidd came up and introduced himself. Now everyone in skiing at that time knew who Bill Kidd was, but he never took that for granted. When I finally made my way to Heuga, and introduced myself, he looked at me and said, “You drove me to Sugarloaf.” I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been.

The last time I saw him on skis was at Attitash at one of his fundraisers. He remembered me once again. Our paths crossed on several occasions over the years, and he always remembered. Instead of giving in to a debilitating disease, he fought it with a quiet determination. In that fight, he helped thousands of others make their lives better. Jimmy Heuga got more out of life and gave more back than most of the able-bodied among us. He will be missed, but his clinic lives on.

I was reminded that the first Ski-A-Thon was 25 years ago when I received word that this year’s event raised nearly $305,000. Thanks to that effort and 450 volunteers, MHS serves hundreds of handicapped skiers each season, all free of charge.

Another old friend contacted me and told me about a new, hand-made Swiss ski. Sepp Gmeunder, who managed Sunday River from 1970-72 and installed the area’s first snowmaking and first chair lift, called and told me about the RTC. As I was watching the video of the ski getting made I was prompted to call Maine ski inventor, John Howe, who had shown me how he built the Claw years ago. I was wondering if it was still being produced. He informed me that he installs his special plates on other race skis, such Volkl and Fischer and that there was one individual looking into producing the skis, so although “on life support, the Claw lives”.

Finally, how fast have you gone on a pair of skis? Most advanced skiers travel between 20-35 mph. Some go faster, but even Super-G racers only get up to 60 mph or so. And that’s on long, stable skis with boots that are an absolute fit and bindings that secure them to the skis with no opportunity for false release. Now think about approaching a mile a minute on cross country skis.

On Sunday, March 14, Carl Zurhorst, a senior at Mountain Valley High School hit 55 mph on Black Mountain’s main trail, a wide run with a good pitch and a long run out to get back under control. Naturally I called to learn why anyone would make such an attempt and discovered a bright, articulate young man, who explained, “I wanted to do something no one had ever done”.

It sounds like an incredible risk, but his background as an alpine racer and 10 years of dance lessons for balance, along with careful planning brought the risk within acceptable levels. Representatives from Guinness declined to certify the attempt, saying they didn’t want to differentiate between types of skis. Zurhorst plans to appeal. After all lumping alpine speed skis with cross country gear is like putting VW Bugs in the same class as Indy race cars. Maybe they’ll see the light and this young Black Mountain skier will get his record. Let’s hope so. He certainly earned it. Happy Easter.

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