Chris Klug’s triumph after transplant

Feb. 15, 2012, 12:09 p.m. (ET)

Chris Klug recalls the morning of Feb. 15, 2002, with crystal clarity.

The biggest day of what he calls “two of the most fun and best weeks of my life” was a day unlike any he’s ever experienced as a snowboarder.

That day, Klug completed one of the biggest feel-good stories of the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games by earning a bronze medal in the parallel giant slalom just 19 months after a liver transplant, a feat that turned him into a media darling.

But when he recalls the experience now, on the 10th anniversary of those Winter Games, one of the first things he pictures is the scene at Park City, that day, hours before he would go on to win his Olympic medal.

“It was bizarre,” Klug said. “It was snowing, and it was sunny when we showed up there. And it was cold. The snow itself was that classic, Utah super-grip manmade-natural combination, just absolutely perfect for holding an edge in racing.

“It literally was a perfect bluebird sunny day but it was almost snowing a little bit, and so there was this magical-like glimmer to the snowflakes with the sun shining through it. It was surreal.”

Later, when a crowd of 25,000 gathered at the bottom of the run — the largest to watch snowboarding — Klug remembers the sound those fans created.

“When you were at the start gate, it was like there was a thunder storm at the bottom of the hill,” Klug said. “The roar of the crowd. That was pretty exciting to ride into that. It still brings chills to me to think about riding into that and looking back and my friend Nic (Nicolas Huet) from France was a half gate behind me and I’d won the bronze medal and 25,000 people, the home crowd, just erupting. It was just an incredible feeling.”

For Klug, now 39 and a businessman, motivational speaker and new, first-time father in Aspen, Colo., the story of those 2002 Games is a multi-chapter tale that includes his more than 20 years on the world snowboarding circuit, his liver disease and transplant, some duct tape, one glorious run to a medal and the platform he created with his victory that, he said, “has opened doors for me that I never imagined.”

The Road to the Games

Klug got into snowboarding at an early age, in an era of “moon boots and duct tape and glorified pieces of plywood with a leash that went from the nose to your front arm.” He dreamed of one day competing in an Olympic Winter Games like many of the athletes he admired — skier Billy Johnson and speed skaters Eric Heiden and Dan Jansen. Often, he was told to forget about it.

“Snowboarding’s not in the Olympics and it never will be,” he remembers people telling him.

But Klug went on to become part of the first U.S. team of snowboarders to compete in the Winter Games in Nagano in 1998, when the sport made its debut. He finished sixth in his event but vowed to work toward medaling in Salt Lake City.

“I set a goal (after Nagano) that I’m going to come back in four years and I’m going to get the job done,” he said. “Little did I know that interesting road that I would travel to get there.”

The Transplant

Klug suffered from primary sclerosing cholangitis, a chronic liver disease caused by progressive inflammation and scarring of the bile ducts of the liver. In 2000, Klug — who had been on a transplant waiting list for six years — took a turn for the worse and was at a critical stage for about three months. At that time he wasn’t so much concerned with winning a medal, but with staying alive.

“It was a scary time,” he said.

In July of that year, a 13-year-old boy was accidentally shot and killed by a neighbor playing with a gun. His family donated his organs, including his liver, which proved to be a perfect match with Klug. From tragedy came a life-saving, second chance for Klug and for three others who also received organs, Klug said.

From the moment he awoke from surgery, Klug knew he would be OK.

“When I woke up it was like they put a brand new V8 engine in me and I’d been running around with a clunker four-cylinder forever,” he said. “It was like a light went off in my head, ‘Oh that’s what it’s supposed to feel like.’ ”

He returned to training, qualified for the U.S. team — the first transplant recipient to make the Olympic Games — and became a national story for his remarkable comeback.

Duct Tape and a Medal

Klug advanced through preliminary head-to-head racing in Park City to reach the “small final,” the one-on-one race against his friend Huet for the bronze.

“I think that’s the hardest race in the Olympics,” he said. “If you’re racing for first or second, you’re taking home a medal. But third or fourth? Fourth is a pretty tough pill to swallow when you’re that close.”

In his previous race, however, Klug had broken a small buckle on his boot. Suddenly, he found himself getting ready for the biggest race of his life with a boot that wasn’t going to hold up because of what he calls a broken “50-cent piece of plastic.”

Just before getting into the start gate, however, the U.S. snowboard team tech, after trying to fix it, went to Plan B — duct tape — to wrap and secure the boot.

In a way, Klug says now, it may have been a blessing. The equipment malfunction was a “good distraction” that kept him from thinking about how much he wanted to win. Instead, he just took off down the hill, focusing on his next turn and going all out. The boot held and halfway down the run with a lead, he knew he was going to win because he’d been fastest on the bottom of the hill.

“I smiled to myself and thought, ‘I got him,’ ” Klug recalled.  “Literally the next thing that popped into my head was ‘Don’t smile you idiot, get to the finish line.’ ”

He did, then pumped his fists, dived into the crowd, celebrated with friends and family and enjoyed days and weeks of interviews, TV shows and being a VIP.

The Cause
What the victory also did was give Klug a platform to help others. He had vowed, as he waited for his transplant, that if he got through the operation, he would do whatever he could to assist people who need organ donations and speak out about the cause.

A day after his race, Klug met the donor’s family for the first time, a family with whom he remains in contact. A year later, he started the Chris Klug Foundation that promotes organ-tissue donation.

Though Klug has retired from the World Cup snowboarding circuit after 20 years and three Olympic appearances — including as a 38-year-old in Vancouver, where he finished seventh — he remains active.

As if taking care of a 9-month-old daughter and handling his real estate business isn’t enough, Klug still revels in his good health, competing in endurance cycling races and climbing the Colorado peaks. His ultimate goal is to climb the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on each continent. His first, he hopes, will be Alaska’s Mount Denali this summer.

He still snowboards, but now it’s for fun. Often, it’s after trekking the peaks of the Rockies — the 14,000-foot-plus summits Coloradoans call “14ers” — with his snowboard on his back.

“Yeah, I don’t like hiking down,” he says, laughing. “I like riding down. There’s some pretty spectacular terrain up high.”

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Doug Williams is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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