Chris Klug has carved paths into many a mountain, but one path
is etched into him. Beginning at his sternum, the 16-inch pink
line travels straight down, headed for his navel, before veering
off toward his right hip. You can imagine Klug making the same
sharp turn as he races down a slope on his snowboard, determined
to win or wipe out trying--"going for the cash or the crash," as
he puts it. The scar represents the greatest journey of Klug's
life, one that no trip down a snow-covered hillside, not even
one that wins him an Olympic medal, will ever match.
In April 2000 Klug was pondering death as the stabbing pain from
a rare, degenerative liver disease grew more acute. More than 20
pounds melted off his 6'3", 215-pound frame, and he could do
nothing but hope for the transplant that was his only chance for
survival. Three months later a compatible liver was found and he
was on the operating table in Denver; seven weeks after that he
was back on the slopes. Now the perfect place to end his journey
is in sight--the Olympic medal platform for the men's parallel
giant slalom. "I've been given the gift of life," Klug says. "To
come from where I was to where I am now is a miracle. Capping it
all off with a gold medal is almost more than I could wish for."
Then Klug stops and flashes a leading-man smile. "Almost more
than I could wish for," he says.
Klug, 29, has been dreaming of gold ever since he finished sixth
in the giant slalom at the 1998 Games in Nagano, where
snowboarding made its Olympic debut. He was tied for second, .07
of a second behind Jasey-Jay Anderson of Canada, but on his
second and final run he clipped a gate with his left arm, which
cost him precious tenths and a medal. Klug's disappointment was
tempered by his knowledge that he was likely to return four
years later as a favorite in the event. The knowledge that he
had primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a disease that attacks
the bile ducts in the liver, was hardly a factor, to him. After
all, his body had never failed him before. It had never kept him
from pursuing a lifestyle of almost perpetual athletic motion,
which included surfing, mountain biking and basketball as well
as skiing and snowboarding. He had even been an all-state high
school quarterback in Bend, Ore. When he was diagnosed with PSC,
in '93, he took the news with a no-worries, surfer-dude calm. "I
felt great, and I had no symptoms," he says. "The doctors said
that I'd probably need a transplant somewhere down the road, but
I thought that meant way down the road. I thought, Great, dude.
I'll see you in 20 or 30 years."
His cavalier attitude toward the disease was bolstered by his
continuing success on the snowboarding circuit. He is the U.S.
champion in the slalom, he took the Grand Prix overall Alpine
championship in 2000, and he has five career top five World Cup
finishes in addition to his sixth-place finish in Nagano. "He
was feeling great and winning races, and at the same time he was
being told that he was sick," says Klug's father, Warren. "It
was hard for him to reconcile those things. I think in his mind
he was saying, Are they sure they've got the right guy?"
February 14, 2002
Klug's outlook changed on Nov. 2, 1999. He was driving from Salt
Lake City to his home in Aspen, Colo., National Public Radio his
only company, when he heard the news: Walter Payton was dead.
Klug had grown up cheering Payton, the Chicago Bears' Hall of
Fame running back, but that wasn't why Klug felt a connection to
him. It was because Payton had suffered from PSC. Klug had
written to him when Payton announced that he had the disease.
Don't worry, he told Payton. I've had PSC for years. People
don't die from PSC. Now Klug had proof that they could die, that
he could die. He pulled to the side of the road in tears, the
first time he had cried over his disease, and called his father
on his cell phone. "What," he asked, "does this mean for me?"
From that moment Klug took his disease seriously. The liver
produces bile; in PSC patients the bile ducts become scarred and
inflamed, and the disease can lead to liver cancer, recurrent
infections in the bile ducts or cirrhosis of the liver, the last
of which is often found in alcoholics. In fact, before doctors
diagnosed Klug's PSC, which strikes only one in 10,000 people,
they looked at his liver function and asked if he drank heavily.
"What are you guys talking about?" he said. "I hardly even sauce
By the time Payton died, Klug had begun to feel symptoms of the
disease. He began having the bile-duct infections, and he had to
cut short a surfing vacation in the spring of 2000 because of
intense pain in his side. He went into the hospital to have his
bile ducts cleaned out, a procedure he'd had several times
before, but this time the doctors told him it was useless. There
were no more temporary measures that would help. "That hit us
like a ton of bricks because we knew what it meant--a
transplant," says Warren.
First, however, a liver donor had to be found, and it was
impossible to know when, or if, that would happen. Klug was
given a pager and an estimated waiting period of 30 to 60 days.
As the first month went by, he passed some of the time riding
his bike on Aspen's steep mountain trails, but by early July,
Klug was so sick that there was little he could do but wait and
hope. "I hadn't given up the dream of making it back to the
Olympics, but at that point I was thinking more about just
surviving," he says.
After three months of waiting, Klug finally got the call that
would save his life. The moment was bittersweet: His chance at
life had been made possible by someone else's death. The donor
was a teenage boy who had been killed by a gunshot to the head.
(Klug later wrote a letter of gratitude to the boy's family and
has become a vocal advocate for organ donation.)
Klug came through the six-hour operation with no complications,
and if there had been an Olympic record for swift recoveries, he
surely would have challenged it. According to Dr. Igal Kam, who
performed the surgery on Klug at University of Colorado Hospital
in Denver, the average hospital stay after a liver transplant is
12 days. Klug was out in four. His doctors warned him to wait
six weeks before trying to work out, but within a week he was
riding a stationary bike and doing as much exercise as he could
without tearing the incision that had been closed with 35
staples. He moved on to hiking, then mountain biking and, at
last, less than two months after his surgery Klug stood atop a
glacier on Mount Hood in Oregon, ready to take his first
snowboarding run since the operation. The sky was cloudless, the
air crisp. The day was perfect, but Klug was afraid. What if he
fell? Would he rip open his scar? Would he damage his new liver?
He started gingerly, trying to get a feel for the snow again.
Before the day was out, he had made 10 trips down the mountain,
each one a little more daring than the last. He hadn't taken any
"crash and burn" runs, but he felt strong. The final step came a
few days later, when he lost control of his board and fell. He
flipped over, twisting and turning before he struck the snow. "I
lay there, waiting for some kind of pain or weird sensation," he
says, "but there was nothing, at least nothing more than I would
have felt before I got sick. That's when I knew I was O.K., I
Although he is the top American male in the parallel giant
slalom, Klug is facing imposing competition, including Mathieu
Bozzetto of France, winner of the past two parallel World Cup
championships; Dejan Kosir of Slovenia, who has been among the
top riders on the World Cup tour for the last two years; and
France's Nicolas Huet, who won two World Cup parallel giant
slaloms in 2001, the only rider to have won more than one. Klug
and the U.S. coaches believe, however, that he is more prepared
for competition than ever. "Physically, he's all the way back,
as strong as he ever was," says Nick Smith, an assistant coach
for the U.S. snowboard team. "Mentally, he's even stronger
because he has freed so much of his mind from worry. He's ready
to focus totally on winning the gold."
That's not entirely true. Since the transplant Klug has expanded
his focus. It now takes in not only the result but also the
journey. "There would be a great feeling of accomplishment if I
win the gold," he says, "but there's more to it than that."
There is no medal for stepping into the starting gate, but for
Klug, getting there is a victory just the same.
If there had been an Olympic record for quick recoveries, Klug
surely would have challenged it.
"A gold medal," says a thankful Klug, "is almost more than I
could wish for. Almost more."