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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

A Second Chance at Life, Gold

A grieving family's decision to donate their son's organs saved Olympic snowboarder Chris Klug from a deadly liver disease.

January 26, 2002|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ASPEN, Colo. — This is Chris Klug's life now. There is snowboarding most mornings, followed by a late lunch at places only the locals know about, like Johnny McGuire's, where Klug is partial to the "trucker," a concoction of turkey, bacon, cheddar, mayo and barbecue sauce stuffed in a helpless roll.

There also is time to hang out with his buddies and his longtime girlfriend, with his family and her family. There is time to quietly muse about the gift of a second chance.

Eighteen months ago, Klug was near death, suffering from the same disease that months earlier had killed Walter Payton, the great Chicago Bears running back. Without a transplant, the champion snowboard racer, who finished sixth in the 1998 Nagano Olympics, had just months to live.

Then a tragedy occurred outside Denver. A 13-year-old boy was accidentally shot in the head by a 14-year-old neighbor. His parents, in an act of courage and grace, agreed to donate his organs.

The liver went to Chris Klug. The liver took. Now Klug is strong again, 29, 6 feet, 3 inches, 215 pounds, full of life. He qualified this week for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, where he has as good a chance as anyone to win gold in the parallel giant slalom snowboard race.

He wants to win for himself, of course, because he is a competitive soul. He believes an American ought to win in what is essentially an American-born sport, particularly at a Games held in the U.S. And he wants to show the world that snowboarders are real athletes.

A gold medal would bring the cameras, and he would be in the spotlight long enough to ask everyone: "Do you have a donor card in your wallet?"

Klug spent three years on a transplant waiting list. The last three months, he knew his liver was in failure, starting the moment he felt like a "dagger had been jammed into my right side and turned."

In all, the disease occupied seven years of his life. It left him with a scar that runs from his chest, down at an angle, almost to his right hip.

Called primary sclerosing cholangitis, or PSC, the disease affects about 3 in every 100,000 people, mostly young men. The liver's bile ducts become scarred and then blocked. The cause is unknown. A transplant is the only cure.

Klug was in his early 20s when he was diagnosed after a routine physical exam after he and his family moved from Bend, Ore., where Klug grew up, to Aspen, where his mom is a schoolteacher and his dad runs a hotel a block from the lifts on famed Aspen Mountain. Abnormal blood test results raised suspicions.

"I was feeling great, I was winning World Cup races, I was doing great," Klug said. "I was like, 'You sure you got the right guy? This doesn't make any sense.' "

Liver disease was for alcoholics or drug addicts, right? This was the all-American boy, the high school quarterback turned world-class snowboarder, good looking, well spoken, thoughtful--such a natural that he's featured in a lengthy made-by-NBC movie trailer promoting the Olympics.

Devotion to Sport Began at Young Age

"He's got the brains and the brawn and the fortitude and the dedication," said Pat April, mother of Klug's longtime girlfriend, Missy.

That dedication was evident as far back as high school. It wasn't enough for Klug--at 15, already a snowboarding standout--to get to the slopes only on weekends and holidays. After school, he would drive 40 miles each way to a ski site near Sisters, Ore., with lighted slopes and barrel down the hill well into the night.

There is a picture of Klug at age 11, standing in front of the family Christmas tree with his first snowboard, a red one.

Even then, back in the 1980s, when snowboards still had holes near the nose--so riders could thread a rope and lug the thing up the hill--Klug knew he was onto something big: Snowboarding's growth has far eclipsed traditional skiing in recent years.

Klug's drive was fired by the Olympics. As a boy he watched Eric Heiden win five gold medals in speed skating at the Lake Placid Games in 1980, and Bill Johnson win the downhill in Sarajevo in 1984.

Then in 1998 he was there in Nagano, the first Games in which snowboarding was in the Olympic program.

"Everyone would always talk about that feeling of walking into the opening ceremony," Klug said. "You can't grasp it until you do it. It's magical."

At those Olympics, only family and close friends knew of Klug's condition. He already had been on a transplant waiting list for a year, and he was regularly undergoing procedures to unclog some liver ducts, what he now refers to as "roto-rooter treatments." But no one meeting him would have known he was suffering from a deadly disease. His skin, for instance, was not a telltale yellow.

The men's giant slalom race in Nagano was the first snowboard event in Olympic history, featuring races running through a series of gates, just as in a traditional ski race, with one difference. Snowboarders are anchored to a single board.

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