The Bounce-Back Kid

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

There was no question of taking it easy. They were all too tightly bunched. It wasn't his style, anyway. He was damned if he was going to let this get away from him because he was too timid. Better to fall than not leave it all out on the hill.

Chris flew out of the starting gate. His body angulated at an impossible degree as he went around each gate, his hip just six inches above the snow, trusting the edge of his board and his strength to hold the line.

He moved with grace and with joy down the course, brushing as close to each gate as he dared, the material popping like firecrackers as he thwacked it going by. At the halfway point, his time was on pace for the gold. Just a few more gates, a few more ticks of the clock.

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

Then disaster struck. His arm caught one of the gates just enough to fling him up and spin him off his line. Oh, shit, he thought, but gathered himself and kept going.

Down at the bottom, Chris's entourage had just about exploded when the half split showed him winning. Their eyes went back to the huge television screen, trying to will him through the last few gates to his dream. Then they saw the mistake. It was only a small one, but they knew such things could cost him the race. And sure enough, when he got to the bottom, the scoreboard showed that he was in sixth place, and there he'd remain.

Missy began to cry, an image caught by the television cameras and broadcast around the world. Chris, too, was stunned. He'd been so close. Then he looked up. Fans from dozens of countries were going crazy in the stands, and there, in the middle of the crowd, was his brother, Jim, swirling a huge American flag back and forth. Oh, man, he thought when he realized what the fans were up to, they're doing the wave. He raised his arms above his head and smiled. "I just want to thank the Japanese people for this experience," he told the television cameras that had rushed to capture the moment. "This is great!"

Chris was disappointed with his finish, but it wasn't long before that laugh was ringing through the streets of Nagano as he enjoyed the rest of the event with the people he loved. The sting he couldn't get over, though, was when the International Olympic Committee announced that Rebagliati had tested positive for marijuana after the race and would lose his medal.

It was a slap in the face. After all they'd been doing to legitimize the sport as something other than a playground for pot-heads and part-time athletes, Rebagliati had literally pissed it all away. Eventually, the Olympic committee had to back down. Rebagliati said he must have accidentally inhaled some pot at a party he'd attended weeks before the Olympics; and no written rule said that marijuana was one of the drugs athletes would be tested for -- though such a rule was soon added.

But Chris knew what would happen. The jokes on the late-night talk shows, the commentaries in the newspapers. What did they expect when the IOC invited snowboarders to the Olympics?

There was only one thing left to do: He was going back to the Olympics in four years. To Utah and the hill at Park City, he told his family and his girlfriend, "this time to get my medal."

Descending in his truck from Soldier Summit Pass through the barren Uinta mountains between Price and Spanish Fork, Utah, Chris cruised through the twists and turns, rocking out to thrash-metal CDs. It was November 2, 1999, and he was on his way to Salt Lake City for physical testing with the U.S. snowboard team.

Chris hadn't let the disappointment of his Olympic finish set him back for long. He finished the season as the North American giant slalom champion at the races in Mt. Snow, Vermont. Then he'd gone back to Aspen, where he was named grand marshal for the annual Fourth of July parade, riding in an old convertible and wearing his U.S. Olympic team suit.

In the fall of 1998, he'd reported to training camp in Breckenridge, where, on his birthday, he'd torn up his knee in a freak accident. Chris was just wrapping up gymnastics training -- to improve his balance and strength -- when his right foot got caught between two mats and his knee had been suddenly, painfully, bent backward.

Missy and his parents had gone to pick him up. By the time they arrived, his knee was swollen to the size of a watermelon. He'd already called Dr. Tom Pevny, a young orthopedic surgeon in Aspen, because "he knows what I have to do on this knee." Pevny had assured him that he'd put him back together "good as new."

However, the damage was more severe than imagined. Chris had completely torn three of the four major ligaments that support the joint. A friend who watched some of the surgery came back out and reported that the way the doctors were talking, there was some doubt that Chris would ever be a world-class athlete again. He told Missy, "The only way I can think to describe it is a turkey bone after Thanksgiving...a bare bone. Nothing's attached."

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