The Bounce-Back Kid

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

With two first-place finishes, he was the first snowboarder named to the U.S. Olympic snowboard team. He'd proved his doubters wrong. Snowboarding was going somewhere: It was going to the Olympics, and he was going along for the ride.

Over the next few years, Chris pursued that dream. The only downer was his "secret" disease. There still were no outward signs of the PSC; the worst part was undergoing the ERCPs every six months. But after a bout of vomiting, he'd be good as new the next day -- inhaling pizzas whole, hammering up mountains or charging down slopes. It was more like the flu than a life-threatening illness.

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

He kept his secret from everyone but his family and closest friends. Like most other people, he'd always thought of liver disease as something that affected alcoholics and drug addicts. He knew better now, but he still didn't want to have to deal with people's perceptions of liver disease. He was All-American, and he wanted his sport taken seriously. He saw himself as an ambassador for snowboarding, handing out business cards that read: Chris Klug, professional snowboarder.

Then came the ERCP in the spring of 1997. From the videos they were shown after each ninety-minute procedure, Chris , Warren and Missy knew that the doctors were able to open up less each time. This time, Everson came into the room as Chris was still waking up.

"I want to put Chris on the transplant list now," Everson said. "Low priority, but on the list." The doctor held up his hand. "This is just a precaution and so that he has a history of being on the list."

Chris got angry. "Are you nuts? Aren't you jumping the gun a little? I'm fine."

Everson nodded. "Yes, you're fine. I just want to play it safe."

"But the Olympics...," Chris said.

"Don't worry," the doctor said. "We're going to get you to the Olympics."

And indeed, Chris arrived in Japan in early February 1998, believing that he had an excellent chance to take the gold medal. The race, a giant slalom, suited him, with wider turns and a longer run than the slalom that favored both his technical ability and his powerful body.

"In the early beginnings of the sport, a lot of people thought snowboarding had no place in the Olympics," Chris told USA Today. "They said the sport was all about soul, backcountry riding and freedom, that it wasn't about Olympic medals, fame and fortune. But I've never felt that way...The Olympics is the ultimate in sports. It'll put us on the map."

Most of the family was there: his parents, Jim and Hillary, plus Missy and several friends. They cheered wildly during the opening ceremonies when the U.S. team appeared in their cowboy hats and red-white-and-blue jackets, and suddenly there was Chris's face up on the enormous television screen set up for the fans. He had a huge smile, the same one he'd had that Christmas fifteen years earlier when Santa gave him his first snowboard.

The morning of the race, it was sunny on Mount Yakebitai, where the snowboard competitions would be held. A cold front had canceled the first ski races on another mountain, which made the snowboarders the first Olympians to compete that year before the media. This was the day Chris believed his sport would finally be taken seriously.

He was ready to win. He was relaxed during his training runs, coming over to his family and friends for hugs and to give them pep talks. He looked around with wonder and couldn't believe the size of the crowd, which seemed as pumped up as his own fans.

By the end of the first run, the top ten racers were all within a second of the lead. Canadian Jasey Jay Anderson was in first. Chris was tied for second with Thomas Krueger of Germany. This is perfect, he thought. He preferred to be on the attack rather than trying to hold others off.

Then everything went to hell. For some reason, the race organizers delayed the second run for two hours. In that time, the front that had canceled the ski races moved in, bringing with it snow, fog and a bitter wind. The first five racers went down the course but had such difficulty that the race was halted for fifteen minutes. It resumed again, though conditions had only marginally improved. Many of the top racers, including Anderson, fell or made mistakes that knocked them out of medal contention. The man to beat was Ross Rebagliati, a Canadian who'd been in tenth place after the initial run and was the first racer on the course after the event resumed.

When Chris came to the starting gate, the weather was even worse. He peered through his goggles down the slalom course into a swirling cloud of fog and snow. Somewhere below were 10,000 delirious fans.

As at the Bend qualifier, he had a difficult time seeing farther than the first five gates. Still, he reveled in the moment. He was the Olympics, dude...about to drop the hammer...and he wanted to laugh like a loon. He could hardly believe his childhood dream was coming true, and he was in position to win the gold medal. In less than two minutes, he would determine whether he would become the first gold-medal winner ever in a snowboarding event.

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