The Bounce-Back Kid

Professional snowboarder Chris Klug carves his way back to the top of the mountain.

Chris Klug kissed his girlfriend, Missy, for luck and tromped to the starting gate of the Park City, Utah, World Cup snowboard parallel giant slalom. He snapped his red racing boots into the bindings of his long, yellow Burton board, adjusted the goggles beneath his helmet, and peered down the slope.

Small clouds scudded overhead, but this first Sunday in March promised to turn into a warm one -- and a great day for racing, with the town of Park City already decked out in flags and signs hailing it as one of the venues for the 2002 Winter Olympics, now less than a year away. Somewhere below, his parents, Warren and Kathy, were ringing a cowbell in anticipation of his first run. All his life, he'd been able to count on them for support, and today was no different -- although he hoped they'd stop ringing the darn thing after he left the gate. "Remember, Chris, you love the starting gate," was the last thing Kathy had told him that morning. The starting gate, and all the possibilities.

The top sixteen racers on the World Cup snowboard circuit had drawn bib numbers earlier that morning to determine who would go first; another 56 racers drew their numbers after that. As one of the points leaders, Chris had been in the first lot...and he'd drawn number 16. He wasn't pleased with the number: The more racers who went before him, the more rutted the course, and the greater the chance for a mistake. But it was a small obstacle, all things considered.

 
Brian Stauffer
 
Chris as a toddler.
Chris as a toddler.

Four days of surfing in Hawaii the week before had done the Aspen resident a lot of good, relaxing him after a grueling World Cup tour through Europe and Japan. He was tanned and rested, his mind at peace, and he was ready to attack the gates below him.

Life was beautiful; he was just happy he was still around to enjoy it. His survival had been in question the past summer, when it looked like he might succumb to a mysterious disease destroying his liver before he could get a transplant.

Day after day he'd grown weaker, his marvelous conditioning fading as he waited for a call from University Hospital in Denver telling him that a donor liver had been located. That someone else had died so I could live. He'd taken courage in his father's belief that God would not have brought him through so much adversity in his life only to leave his side, abandoning Chris in his darkest hour. But when days became months, even faith could not conquer doubts that God had plans for him that did not involve a storybook ending.

Then came the day in July when his fate crossed that of a thirteen-year-old boy. A day when a bullet ended one life and saved another. For months after Chris got his new liver, he'd wrestled with that terrible irony, trying to find the words to express his gratitude to a family he didn't know for the gift.

That gift had allowed him to celebrate his 28th birthday in November, the birthday some family members had thought he would never see. That gift had set him back on course for the 2002 Winter Olympics, where, on this very Park City slope, he hoped to conquer his disappointment over a sixth-place finish at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Then he'd acknowledge the gift from the podium -- a gold medal around his neck and "The Star-Spangled Banner" playing in the background -- by championing the cause of organ-donor programs, much as two-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong had championed cancer awareness following his own life-and-death struggle.

Chris's mother believed that all the struggles he'd faced since birth had a purpose: to prepare him for the ordeal with his liver. Beneath the skintight gray and black racing suit he was wearing, his body bore a half-dozen testimonials to his father's nickname for him, the Bounce-Back Kid. Thin white scars that ran up his heels and on either side of his right knee. And one long scar -- half of a Mercedes symbol or a peace sign, depending on your perspective -- across his abdomen, still fresh and purple. A scar he jokingly referred to as "a shark bite."

The Park City race in 2000, which had taken place before he knew he was going to need a new liver, had been a disaster. He and other top racers had fallen, victims of a poorly prepared course. Now Chris gripped the sides of the starting gate, sliding his board back and forth, preparing to propel himself forward. He wanted this win. Nine runs, the first a time trial to get into the finals; then, if all went according to plan, eight head-to-head, side-by-side heats with his competition. It would be his way of saying that he was all the way back, the man to beat when they all met again here next year.

He wasn't about to take it easy now. That was not his style. His whole life had been lived on the edge. There was nothing left to fear.

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