While the 1960 Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley awoke a nation to the high-speed sport of ski racing, it was the 1964 Olympics that debuted the modern age of the U.S. Ski Team.
Under the leadership of legendary Coach Bob Beattie, the Americans went into Innsbruck as media stars with names like Buddy Werner and Chuck Ferries expected to shine. American Jean Saubert had taken silver and bronze, continuing a long list of U.S. women's alpine medals dating back to 1948. But as it came down to closing day in Austria, the eyes of the nation were on the highly-touted men who had yet to medal in all of history.
It was two improbable heroes that wrote history for American skiing that day. They came from different backgrounds, thousands of miles apart Billy Kidd from Stowe, Vt., and Jimmie Heuga from Squaw Valley, Calif. They were both 20, but Kidd looked at Heuga as a hero and the top junior in America. What happened that day sealed a bond they shared for a lifetime.
A week earlier, Kidd had drawn number one in the downhill and thought he could win. But stage fright took over. He faltered at the top and finished 16th. He would not let it happen again.
After the first run of the men's slalom, Heuga, skiing out of the second seed in 24th, stood third and had a shot at the gold. Kidd was sixth. Nervous memories of the downhill were gone from his mind as he planted his poles in the start of the Birgitzkoepfel course at Axamer Lizum. The team's veterans Werner and Ferries were in the finish.
Kidd had the run of a lifetime 50,000 screaming fans and he never heard a sound other than the metal edges of his skis biting into the ice. Turn after turn, in staccato tempo, he took down the slalom course with the afternoon's fastest run. But he was second to Austria's Pepi Stiegler (future father of U.S. Ski Team star Resi). His heart sunk until he realized he had clinched the first American men's Olympic skiing medal in history.
Then came Jimmie, battling a tough course late in the day to finish third. In one of the quintessential photo moments in the history of the sport, Coach Beattie and their teammates hugged the bewildered young men as the U.S. Ski Team celebrated.
"We weren't the favorites," said Kidd. "We were just two young kids who did the unexpected. If either one of us had won a medal, you could say it was luck. But for the two of us to win together, it was a Team. To win a medal in the Olympics is such an accomplishment. But doing it with my teammate racing together as rivals made it that much more meaningful."
It was a day of legend that will forever live on Kidd, Heuga, Beattie, embracing in the finish line, broad smiles crossing their faces relieved, in a way, after the intense pressure that had been on their shoulders. "Nothing comes out of pressure but greatness," said Beattie to Sports Illustrated reporter Dan Jenkins. "That's what we've told these kids all along, and that's what we believe." And that's exactly what they delivered!
In future years, Kidd would go on to win a World Championship and become the face of Steamboat Springs Stetson and all. Heuga was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis ironically, as was gold medalist Stiegler and would dedicate his life to advocating for an activity-based solution to MS rehabilitation before passing away on the eve of the 2010 Olympics. Both became honored members of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.