On screen in Aspen: Can-do attitude | AspenTimes.com

On screen in Aspen: Can-do attitude

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoFormer U.S. Ski Team standouts and University of Colorado teammates Jimmie Heuga, left, and Billy Kidd won bronze and silver medals, respectively, in slalom at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.

ASPEN – Mike Marolt fondly remembers the time he spent with Jimmie Heuga.

The Aspen resident was just a youngster when he met Heuga, the Tahoe City, Calif., native who was a member of the first U.S. men’s alpine squad ever to win an Olympic medal. The slalom bronze medalist at the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, used to bunk with Marolt’s grandparents during trips to Aspen.

The two struck up an unlikely friendship but lost touch for an extended period.

A chance phone call changed everything, however, said Marolt, an accountant, mountaineer and filmmaker. A chance phone call “really woke me up.”

“It was four or five years after I got out of college, and I got a call from him out the blue,” he said of Heuga, whose promising skiing career and life were derailed in 1970 when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 27. Heuga died in February 2010.

“I remember him telling me, ‘If everybody got out of school and decided to pick a fight – homelessness, cancer, MS – and stuck to it, dedicated a portion of their life to it, we’d eliminate a lot of the awful problems in the world.’ He asked me if I would help take on MS.”

Marolt said he has been on the bandwagon for the past 15 or so years.

He has been doing his part to raise money and awareness for MS, an autoimmune disease that affects the functioning of the brain and the central nervous system. He has even turned Heuga’s story – one of perseverance and optimism – into a short film.

“Can Do: The Legacy of Jimmie Heuga” will screen Thursday night at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House.

“I personally don’t have the ability to write a check for $300,000, but I’ve been given the gift to be able to go out and ski and also been given the gift to produce films,” Marolt said. “I’m trying to use my talents to make a difference. The reward you get from doing something like that – and doing it for a long period – is something you can’t quantify.

“The more you help, the more you want to do it.”

Heuga’s legacy stems far beyond the starting gates, Marolt said. His story of not only surviving a chronic disease for 40 years but thriving is a model for others.

When Heuga initially was diagnosed, doctors recommended that he embrace a sedentary lifestyle devoid of skiing or training, Marolt said. Heuga followed orders for three years, a period in which he battled depression and suicidal thoughts.

He decided to make a change.

“He got back on the bike and started working out again,” Marolt said. “He said, ‘I don’t care if it kills me. That was no way to live.’

“He found that exercise vastly improved his quality of life, and he spent the rest of his life proving how important exercise and physical training was for people with MS and other diseases in general. He really became an inspiration.”

Heuga founded Can Do MS (formerly The Jimmie Heuga Center for Multiple Sclerosis) in Edwards in 1984. The organization’s mission: provide lifestyle empowerment programs to help people with MS reclaim dignity, control and freedom.

Marolt said he has helped raise an estimated $200,000 to date for the center’s endowment. He’s hoping his latest film, which has been in the works for about three years, will further the cause.

“It’s a very inspirational film, one that resonates with not only those who have MS but the entire community,” Marolt said. “‘Can Do’ were Jimmie’s words. He was convinced you could do a lot more than you think you can. Everybody faces hurdles in life, and the way to deal with them is to not dwell on them but accept them and make the most of your life. We’re definitely stronger than we think we are.

“Jimmie is still changing lives. That’s his true legacy.”