The Bounce-Back Kid

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

After Chris woke up, Tomasso gave them the bad news. He'd found evidence of inflammation and scarring in the bile ducts. He wasn't sure, but he thought Chris might have a rare disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis, or PSC for short.

"It's unusual, but not unheard of," Tomasso said. No one seemed to know what caused it, and there was no known cure. The problem was that after a period of time, the scarring would plug the ducts, and the bile would pool up in the liver, creating more damage. The result was that Chris would someday need a liver transplant.

Chris let out an incredulous laugh.

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

"You sure you got the right guy?" he asked. "I feel like a million symptoms."

Tomasso wasn't smiling. His diagnosis wasn't a sure thing, but he wanted Chris to go see the real expert on liver disease, a Dr. Gregory Everson at University Hospital.

In the meantime, Chris went ahead with his heel surgery. He was still on crutches that winter when he, his father and Missy met with Everson, the medical director of the hospital's liver-disease program, one of the top such programs in the world. Everson and Dr. John Vierling had created it in the 1980s, developing a team approach to dealing with liver disease that included drug researchers and transplant surgeons.

University Hospital had been an early pioneer in liver transplants, back before the development of drugs that would keep the body from rejecting donated organs. As a result, long-term survivors had been few, and liver transplants had been stopped in the mid-1970s. They were reinstated in 1988 by Dr. Igal Kam and Dr. Fritz Karrer. With their skill and the advent of new anti-rejection drugs, University Hospital soon had one of the best records in the country for long-term survival of transplant patients.

But Everson wasn't really talking about transplants now. He said he wanted to perform another ERCP. Only this time, if he found what he suspected he would, his team would use the laparoscope to dilate some of the bile ducts by inflating a tiny balloon on its tip, a sort of a "roto-rooter" for the liver.

It was not going to be a comfortable experience, he warned.

If Tomasso's hunch was right, the procedure would release bile that was pooling up in Chris's liver behind the scarred ducts. Chris woke up vomiting a foul green slime. The stuff kept coming up for hours, leaving him weak and bewildered. Everson came in and delivered the bad news. Tomasso was right: Chris had PSC.

The disease affects about three in every 100,000 people, he said, mostly young men. There is no cure. They could control the infections caused by the pooled bile with antibiotics, dilute his bile with a drug made of bear bile to allow it to get through his ducts easier, and perform ERCPs every six to eight months. But the ERCPs would do less and less as time went by, he warned, until finally they would do no good at all, at which point Chris would need a transplant.

When? No one knew that either, he said. The disease had a mind of its own. It might be three years, it could be twenty, even thirty years down the road.

Missy and the Klugs were stunned.

Missy heard Everson's three-year prediction and burst into tears. But Warren heard twenty years, which gave him hope.

Chris accepted that he had a life-threatening disease. But he'd heard twenty years, too. That would be long after his racing career was over. Long after he'd won an Olympic medal.

Two years later, Chris was poised for the 1997-98 Olympic push as the top American rider. But to make the Olympic team, riders had to qualify by racing in three Grand Prix events held in the United States.

The first Grand Prix was held in December at Sugarloaf Mountain in Vermont. Chris placed second to Canadian Jasey Jay Anderson, always one of his main competitors on the tour, but the important thing was being the top American finisher. He knew that if he placed in the top two or three at the next Grand Prix, which was scheduled for later in the month at his old stamping grounds, Mt. Bachelor, he would sew up an Olympic berth.

He tuned up with some World Cup races in Europe. He placed second in the giant slalom at the ISF World Series in Laax, Switzerland, then followed that with a first-place win in an FIS giant slalom in Grachen, Switzerland.

"This is a great win for me," Klug told the Aspen Times after that one. "My goal for this year is to be on the podium representing the United States in the giant slalom at the Olympics in Nagano. I expect to be there and to medal. That has been my motivation."

When Chris arrived in Bend for the second Grand Prix, he was feted as the hometown hero. On the slope, he laid it on the line, coming in first place after the first run. The weather had deteriorated, knocking some of the best racers out of contention. Snow was coming down hard, and he could hardly see beyond the first few gates. Yet Chris shot out of the gate, scorching the mountain as the day's fastest.

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