The Bounce-Back Kid

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

One month passed. Then two. Time seemed to be speeding up while Chris was slowing down. He had never dreamed it would take so long, and he swore that if he survived, he would do what he could to champion the cause of organ-donor awareness, just as Lance Armstrong had used his fame to bring attention to cancer awareness.

At first Chris kept up with his training, bent on making a record comeback. A typical day, usually with Missy or another of his many friends, might include a five-hour bike ride up a mountain, followed by a volleyball game, a weightlifting session and a round of golf with his parents.

By mid-July, however, Chris could feel his body failing him. Powerful antibiotics kept the worst infections at bay, but he seemed to run a constant low-grade fever. By the end of the month, he'd put his mountain bike away; he simply couldn't recover from any aerobic exercise. His activities were mostly limited to golf or fly-fishing. Some days, all he could do was to sit on the couch and play chess.

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

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He drew inspiration following the progress of Lance Armstrong, who was cruising through the Alps and in the midst of making his second bid to win the Tour de France. And for the most part, Chris avoided conversations about what his deteriorating health might mean.

He still kept his disease quiet, but it wasn't so much because he was worried what anybody else would think. He was making a point of spending all of his time with his family and friends. He didn't want to waste what were possibly the last days of his life answering questions and talking to strangers about his disease.

But he didn't want his loved ones worrying, either. Only rarely did the pressure build up so much that he slipped, saying something like, "Of course, I might not make it." Still, the dark specter of complete liver failure or cancer hung in his thoughts. The longer he went, the more likely that cancer would appear, and then, just as with Walter Payton, there'd be no more talk of a lifesaving liver transplant. He'd be dead.

Outwardly, he appeared more concerned about what further delays would do to his racing season, particularly important this year for gaining points to make the Olympic team. It was going to take time to rehabilitate, he fretted.

Family and friends handled the pressure in their own way. They all worked to keep Chris occupied and encouraged. Fabrocini called David Robinson and asked him to have Sean Elliot, his teammate, call Chris. Elliot was the first professional athlete to come back and play after an organ transplant -- in his case, a kidney transplant. He encouraged Chris to keep working out as best he could. It could be done, he said. He'd done it, though not with a liver transplant -- a tougher operation.

Sleepless nights were unavoidable, especially for Kathy. But when things were at their grimmest, she recalled who it was that she was fearful for and gained hope. Wasn't this the struggling infant who'd gripped her finger so tightly she knew he wasn't leaving...the teenager who'd told anyone who would listen that he would be in the Olympics someday...one of the best in his sport a year after being told he might never walk normally again...the Olympian? God had plans for this kid, of that she was sure.

But privately, Chris was starting to realize that he might die. He would wake up in the night having soaked his sheets with sweat while dreaming. Sometimes he dreamed he had a new liver and was back racing. But there were the nightmares when he didn't make it. During the days, Chris kept himself up by focusing on the finish line. He was going to do his damnedest to make good on his promise to get the gold medal in Salt Lake City in 2002.

There was one issue that they all wrestled with: For Chris to live, someone else had to die. Chris was troubled by it. He loved life so much, it was hard to come to grips with the idea that someone else would have to lose his so that Chris could go on. In the rare moments when he would acknowledge the possibility of his own death, he told Missy that it made him feel better to know that he'd taken such good care of his heart, lungs and kidneys so that someone else could enjoy their use.

His parents were troubled, too. They had believed in the power of prayer all their lives. They'd asked God to watch over their children, prayed for divine intervention when Chris was an infant and when he struggled to breathe as a child. But how could they pray for someone else's child to be killed in a terrible accident so that their son could live? The dilemma struck home that summer when the eleven-year-old daughter of friends was killed in an automobile accident. At the memorial service, Chris's father had been acutely aware of the grieving parents as he realized with horror, This is the other side of what Chris needs.

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