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Olympic Skier Tackles Steeper Challenge: Multiple Sclerosis

You can’t help but wonder how many Olympic skiing medals this compact dynamo might have won had he not been avalanched by fate.

For one electric moment during the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, Jimmie Heuga appeared to be a phenomenon on the rise.

At just 20, he grabbed the bronze in the slalom, a heartbeat behind second-place countryman Billy Kidd. They were the first American men ever to win medals in alpine skiing.

As the years ticked by, however, it became chillingly obvious something was terribly wrong with Heuga, who visited Spokane the other day.

His times fell flat. His vision blurred. A temporary numbness developed in his pistonlike legs. Then in 1970, Heuga sat with a sad-eyed neurologist who forever changed the young athlete’s life with two words:

Multiple sclerosis.

“I wasn’t impressed with it,” says Heuga, issuing a half laugh. “I couldn’t even pronounce multiple sclerosis.”

MS is a mysterious disease that slowly attacks the nervous system, causing a variety of symptoms: weakness, incontinence, bad vision, lack of muscle control…

Heuga is now an authority on life after MS.

His Jimmie Heuga Centers scattered throughout the United States are renowned for goal-oriented treatment of people who share his fate.

The former Olympian has brought something new to Spokane.

Collaborating with Spokane Youth Sports, Heuga set up the nation’s first multiple sclerosis exercise facility at 3014 E. 55th. Two times a week, MS patients can participate in carefully supervised workout sessions.

The program underscores Heuga’s core belief that a chronic condition is no excuse for giving up. “You have to make each day count,” he says.

The optimism flows easily, but this was a monumentally difficult lesson for Heuga to learn. For years after his diagnosis, the skier’s life was on a downhill slide.

Back then, conventional medical wisdom was for MS patients to avoid all stress. For Heuga, who started skiing at age 2, being told to suddenly vegetate was a death sentence. His marriage broke up. He became a recluse.

Then, in 1975, Heuga had a moment of insight triggered by a quote from philosopher Blaise Pascal: “One of man’s greatest obstacles is to learn to sit quietly in his room.” Heuga interpreted this as a call to “get back into life.”

This bold decision to reject a safer sedentary existence is why Spokane Olympian Susie Luby unabashedly calls the man her hero.

“Here was this incredibly talented ski racer who was struck with something so devastating,” says Luby, who won the bronze women’s downhill medal during the 1972 Winter Games. “Yet he had the strength to say, ‘I believe I know what is best for me.”’

Luby, who met Heuga years ago on the ski circuit, is a mainstay in helping raise money for her friend’s centers.

She was instrumental in making the Spokane MS exercise room a reality. The facility opened last week with five people using it. Luby says many more will be there as soon as they are evaluated to see what they can handle. (Call 1-800-367-3101 for information.)

Multiple sclerosis now rides with Heuga every time he climbs into the electric cart he needs to get around. It haunts him with each trip to the bathroom, where he must use a catheter to urinate.

He has stubbornly continued to ski, but Heuga doubts there will be any more teetering downhill runs.

Yet for all his limitations, Heuga is determined to confront whatever this enemy of the flesh dishes out.

“I’m just not a person who is troubled by what I’m not able to do,” says Heuga, flashing a smile. “I’m excited about today and tomorrow.”

Last chance for Christmas cash

Wednesday is the deadline to enter my annual 12 Ugly Ties of Christmas Contest. A $100 Nordstrom gift certificate will be awarded for the ugliest store-bought and homemade ties. So get your nightmare neckwear to The Spokesman-Review pronto. Don’t forget to include your name and number.

, DataTimes

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