The Kid Bounces Back

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

Because he'd been free-riding, he hadn't worn his racing helmet, and the blow to his head caused him to see stars. He hadn't worn a one-piece suit, either, and he ended up with a few yards of snow down his baggy rider pants.

Chris lay on the snow, afraid to get up. He mentally searched his body, waiting for some pain or strange sensation to tell him that his comeback was going to be short-lived. But there was nothing worse than a similar fall would have caused before the operation. I'm okay, he thought. I'm really okay!

At last he stood and made his way off to the side of the slope, where he dropped his pants to get the snow out. His coach, Jan Wegelin, who'd seen the crash, thought maybe Chris had really frightened himself in the fall. "What'd you do?" Wegelin yelled, laughing. "Shit your pants?"

 
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.

Chris realized the image he must have presented -- bent over with his pants down while he dumped the snow out. His peculiar laugh pealed across the slope, partly at his coach's joke, but more in relief at having taken a hard fall and survived. It would have happened sooner or later, and until it did, it would have weighed on him mentally. Now, he concluded, he had nothing to fear on the slopes. The next morning, he joined his teammates at the running gates and quickly established himself as the top American rider going into the season.


On November 18, Christopher Jefferies Klug, the boy whose mother was told he might not survive his first few days of life, reached his 28th birthday. He celebrated by placing third at Breckenridge in "tune-up" races for the upcoming World Cup season in Europe, and later at home in Aspen with his family and girlfriend.

It was fitting that the Colorado Donor Registry went into effect the next day. Until that day, Colorado citizens had agreed to be organ donors by signifying their intentions on their driver's licenses. There were several problems with this. One was that potential donors rarely arrived at the hospital with their driver's licenses: In the case of a fatal accident, police or medical personnel often took licenses for identification. Another was that people from out of state might not have the same sort of identification. And a third was that families were often not told of their loved one's intentions.

The donor registry automatically took over a million names from those who'd indicated that preference on their driver's licenses and placed them in a computer file. Citizens could now also register by going to ColoradoDonorRegistry.org on their computers. In the case of a donor's death, Donor Alliance could look at the list and know his intention; a donor's family would no longer face that decision. The belief was that the donor registry might save an additional forty to fifty lives a year in Colorado and Wyoming alone.

Whenever he was asked, Chris participated in television and newspaper interviews, including a moving spot for NBC that covered both himself and his boyhood hero, Walter Payton, and their battle against PSC. With each media representative, he insisted that they devote some part of what they were doing to organ-donor programs. He hoped that by doing so, he could save lives as his life had been saved. Despite this, he still struggled with how to personally thank the family of the boy whose liver he carried.


Chris knew his comeback was not going to start at the top. During his first few races in Europe, he had problems with falls and a lack of focus. He returned to North America for the Whistler, Canada, World Cup giant slalom. He'd placed third in the race in 1999 and hoped that a repeat performance would get him back to his winning ways. But a mistake on the first run cost him, and it was little consolation that a fast second run moved him from 22nd to eleventh and back into the money and points that counted toward his seeding in future races. He did better the next day on the same slope when he placed second in a parallel giant slalom Continental Cup -- a step below a World Cup event, but still against the top racers and with half the points. He'd followed the Whistler races with a third place in the World Cup at Mt. St. Anne in Quebec, Canada, an event won by his archrival, Canadian Jasey Jay Anderson. Two days later, he followed that by winning the Grand Prix event in Okemo, Vermont, this time edging Anderson.

Back home for Christmas, Chris looked forward to the next Grand Prix race in Breckenridge, an event he'd also won in 1999. He'd drawn bib number 7 -- a lucky omen, he figured, as it was John Elway's Denver Broncos number. He was poised to have a great day after finishing the qualifying round with the second-fastest time to get him into the head-to-head competition. But then he fell on his first run, much to his disappointment and that of Missy and his family: Jason was there, as well as Hillary, who had raced the day before with an eye to following in her brother's footsteps.

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