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The Bounce-Back Kid

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

Pevny was optimistic around Chris. Sure, he'd be back and training next year, he told his patient. He kept to himself his fears that along with the tears, there was a strong possibility of severe nerve damage that might not only end Chris's racing career, but could also prevent him from ever walking normally again.

Chris had to stay off the leg entirely for eight weeks. Unable to exercise, he lost a lot of muscle mass, especially in his leg, which he described as "a toothpick." He had only a 10 percent range of motion, and when he finally was allowed to begin rehabilitation, it took more than a week before he had the flexibility to turn the pedals of a stationary bike one complete revolution.

Pevny turned him over to physical therapist Bill Fabrocini, a friend of Chris's from the Aspen Club, an athletic facility. Fabrocini had a national reputation as a physical therapist and had brought basketball player David Robinson and former Bronco linebacker Mike Croel back from injuries. But Chris's was worse, and Fabrocini shared Pevny's private concerns.

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

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That marked the beginning of months of "torture sessions" as Fabrocini put Chris through a rigorous program to regain his range of motion, then his balance and strength in the leg. Twice a day, every day, for two to three hours at a time, Chris and Fab worked out.

There were times, Chris would confess to Missy, that he just wanted to quit. Times when he began to doubt himself. He was worried that his sponsors would drop him. After all, they paid him to race and win, not learn to walk again.

But the sponsors didn't give up on Chris, and nobody else would let him give up, either. Not Fab, who pushed, cajoled and challenged him. Not Missy, who emptied his urine jars at night when he was laid up for two months and held him when he was down. Not his parents.

One day Kathy found her son crying. He thought his career was finished. It was so unlike him to feel sorry for himself. "Why do you want to go back, Chris?" she asked. "Ask yourself, 'What do I love about racing?'"

Chris thought about it for a moment. "I love the starting gate, Mom," he replied. He said he loved the possibilities a race day represented.

Well, then, she said, he had two options. Cry, give up, and find something new to love. Or he could do everything he could to get back on his board: There was a medal to win in Salt Lake City in less than four years.

The reminder was all he needed. By the end of spring 1999, he was carving his first turns at Aspen. By that summer, as he prepared for the racing season ahead, if Missy made reference to his "bad knee," he'd snap, "I don't have a bad knee." No one, especially not Chris himself, could use it as an excuse.

Still, he was nervous as he drove to Utah that fall to take the pre-Olympic physical test -- a sort of pre-camp measurement of agility and strength -- which would be the first time he'd meet the new U.S. coach, Jan Wegelin. He was wondering how it would go when he flipped on the radio. What he heard nearly caused him to veer off the road. The broadcaster announced that Walter Payton had died the night before of liver cancer. Pulling onto the shoulder, Chris began to cry. He knew that it was more than liver cancer that had killed his boyhood hero; it was PSC.

In an emotional press conference in February, the former running back had disclosed that he had PSC and that he needed a liver transplant. Payton had looked terrible. Even worse than he looked, though, was how Payton had cried. Chris had wanted to tell him that it wasn't so bad; he'd get a liver and go on with his life.

Now Payton, as tough an athlete as there ever was, was dead at age 45, and Chris thought he knew why the football player had broken down at the press conference. He already knew he had cancer and wasn't eligible for a liver transplant.

For the first time since he'd been diagnosed, Chris was truly frightened. Back then, Everson hadn't emphasized the possibility of liver cancer or transplants. Chris had been going along, rarely thinking of his disease between rounds of ERCPs. When he did, it was always with the thought that there was plenty of time before he had to worry about the more drastic ramifications.

Death was never an option...until Chris heard the news about Payton. Why me? He got on his cell phone and called his father, who'd also heard the news. "What does this mean for me?" he asked.

Warren flinched at the words. This was the Bounce-Back Kid, the one you couldn't keep down. Whether it was fighting to breathe, losing a race he expected to win, or undergoing a surgeon's knife, Chris always popped back up. Now he was going to have to rebound again. Warren told his son that he didn't have to accept Payton's fate. Chris could be a participant in his own destiny; he could fight this thing. He pointed out that Payton had been older and probably wasn't diagnosed until it was too late. Chris had been fortunate that a routine blood test had led him to Dr. Tomasso, who probed until he had an answer. Now he was with the best liver specialists in the world.

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