The Kid Bounces Back

A boy's death gives snowboarder Chris Klug a second chance at life and the Olympics.

With that in mind, he knew he had no time to waste getting back on the slopes. Points earned at World Cup and Grand Prix races during the 2000-01 season wouldn't specifically determine who would be on the team, but they would determine seeding at the first few races the following year in the quest to make the Olympic team. That would be a huge boost in terms of the conditions under which he raced. There would also be a psychological advantage to being the best American rider going into the season.

That mental edge was important. He knew it wasn't just his body he was going to have to rehabilitate. After the fear and worry of the months preceding his transplant, he was going to have to switch from survival mode to the focus needed to become a champion again. If there were going to be physical and mental issues, he wanted a full season to get them out of the way before the push for the Olympics, and he wasn't going to do that walking around the corridors of a hospital.

According to the docs at University Hospital, the average stay for a liver-transplant patient after surgery was twelve days. He made it out in four, moving into the downtown hotel where he had stayed before the operation. As a recovering patient, he had to have bloodwork done every few days for the next three weeks to make sure his new liver was working properly and to gauge his reaction to the anti-rejection drugs.

 
Michael Brands
 
Chris Klug gets encouragement from his girlfriend, Missy, as hospital staffers prep him for his transplant.
Warren Klug
Chris Klug gets encouragement from his girlfriend, Missy, as hospital staffers prep him for his transplant.

Still, he did what he could at the hotel -- climbing on a stationary bike just two days after the operation and doing light repetitions using weights on isolated arm and leg muscles, always conscious of not putting a strain on his abdomen.

For all he'd been through, Chris hadn't lost his sense of humor. One day he was riding the stationary bike with his shirt pulled up to avoid irritating his scar when an airline pilot came into the weight room to work out. The pilot took a look at the huge scar with its parallel rows of dots where the staples had been and asked what happened.

"I was attacked by a shark," Chris said with a straight face.

"My God, you're lucky to be alive!" the pilot exclaimed.

The conversation was so funny to Chris that he didn't have the heart to tell the truth. Besides, he did feel lucky to be alive.

As soon as he got the doctors' okay, Chris took off for Aspen to hook up with his friend Fabrocini. As a physical therapist in a ski town, Fabrocini was used to assisting people recovering from knee injuries or broken bones. This was the first time the prescription read "liver transplant."

A year earlier, basketball player Sean Elliott was the first professional athlete to return to his sport after a transplant, in his case a kidney. But a liver was a much more complicated organ, and as far as Fabrocini knew, there'd never been a world-class athlete who'd returned to the elite levels of his sport following such a surgery. And certainly not one in the history of the Olympic Games.

Although Chris was anxious to get back in shape all at once, he knew enough to stick with the schedule Fabrocini had devised after consulting with the experts. For the first few weeks, the regimen stayed light. Fabrocini massaged the scar, sometimes using ultrasound, to break up the scar tissue and keep his patient limber for the gut-wrenching, twisting maneuvers involved in snowboard racing. They also worked on regaining his balance by walking forward and backward on a narrow beam -- with eyes open, then closed -- as well as trying to stay upright while standing on a board with a wooden roller underneath.

Chris began hiking in the mountains around Aspen with Missy and other friends to regain his aerobic capacity. Within a couple of weeks he was on his mountain bike, charging up and down trails, something he'd always found to be good training for his legs and for getting used to riding in a narrow space at high speeds. He still avoided stress on his abdomen, though. No sit-ups, and no weightlifting moves, like squats, that might cause injury. His appetite had returned, and he was gaining back the twenty pounds he'd lost.

In those moments when he reflected back on what he'd been through in the past couple of years, Chris felt as if he'd been clinging to a pendulum: on top of the world at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, fearing he would die in July, and now riding back to the top. The support he got helped. He was still getting e-mails and letters from fans.

In August, he had signed a new two-year deal with Burton snowboards. He was grateful for the vote of confidence. Burton had said it would stick by him, and it had -- as had Bolle sunglasses and the Aspen Skiing Company. Another sponsor, the Aspen Club, where he worked out with Fabrocini, had helped him with the use of its facilities and therapist. When he thought about how Lance Armstrong's French racing-team sponsor had cut its support even as the bicyclist was fighting through chemotherapy, he was humbled by the unwavering loyalty he'd been shown.

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