The Kid Bounces Back

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

Chris left for Europe, where he struggled again, falling in the first two World Cup races. He was riding fast, but small mistakes knocked him down. His problem was mostly one of staying focused. He was beginning to get discouraged. However, there was going to be one last World Cup parallel grand slalom, in Olang, Italy, on January 17, before the world championships in Madonna Di Campiglio, and he wanted to do well.

The U.S. team arrived in Olang a week early to train. Chris felt strong and ready, even though that hadn't yet translated into a win. As was his custom, the day before the race he took two runs through the gates, which went well. He was enjoying being on his board so much that he decided to do a little free-riding in the afternoon.

Taking the chairlift up, he got out his camera. Northern Italy had always been one of his favorite racing regions. It was so beautiful, especially on a cloudless day like this, with the Dolomite Mountains sparkling in the sun. He snapped off a few photos before getting off the lift and cruising down the hill. The snow was perfect, and he couldn't keep from smiling as he arced long graceful turns, aware of how powerful and in sync his body felt.

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.

He got back on the chair and took another run. And then another and another. It was more than he would have normally done on the day before a race. But he was just so happy to be alive and doing what he loved. Arriving at the top of the chair for a final run, he knew at last what he would write to the donor family. He'd tell them what their gift had meant to him.

Dear Donor Family,

I am over in Europe doing my favorite thing in the world, snowboarding. I thank God every day I'm back on the mountain, and I thank you every day for your gift of life. You have given me a second chance to pursue my dreams and to enjoy life to its fullest.

I love my family and I love my girlfriend very much. They are as thankful and as grateful for your gift as I...I am forever grateful and humbled by your decision. And I am truly sorry for your loss.

It is impossible to express with words my gratitude. I hope through my efforts, I can spread the good news on my successful transplant and someday save someone else's life.

Sincerely, Chris

He sent the letter to University Hospital to pass on for him. The next day, a weight removed from his shoulders, he beat the top riders in the world to take his first World Cup win of the season.

In March 2001, there were 75,000 Americans on organ-transplant waiting lists, 1,214 of them in Colorado and Wyoming. Most of those people will wait in vain, however: The previous year, there were only 5,967 donors nationwide, a mere 86 in Colorado and Wyoming.

Meanwhile, a new person is added to the national list every fourteen minutes, and an average of sixteen Americans die every day waiting. The number of organ donors in Colorado and Wyoming has been static for the past five years, while the waiting-list number has multiplied by five. There are no mortality figures yet for Colorado in the year 2000, but in 1999 and 1998, 63 Coloradans died each year, hoping to the bitter end that someone would make the same decision that the thirteen-year-old's mother had. One donor could renew as many as a half-dozen other lives.

Chris heard those figures and wondered why, rededicating himself each day to an Olympic podium from which to champion his cause. The week after winning at Olang, he felt confident of his chances at the World Championships in Madonna Di Campiglio a week later. Although he had lost a contact lens four gates into the qualifying run, he still had the fastest time of the morning -- nearly a second better than that of his closest rival. But a race-course judge deemed that he had ever so slightly allowed the edge of his board to cross over a gate pole, and he'd been disqualified. Canadian Anderson later won, while Chris could only imagine what might have been.

After the European tour was finished, the racers went on to Japan for two World Cup events. Chris got back on the podium with a third-place finish at Sapporo, and a week later, in Asahikawa, he moved up to second.

With a first-place finish in Olang and a second at Asahikawa, Chris was almost guaranteed entry into the next season with seeding as the top American rider and one of a handful of the world's best. He'd definitely proved that as a liver-transplant recipient, he could return to the life he'd left behind. But he'd returned as a changed man. Just as every other ordeal in his life had seemed to toughen him, make him work that much harder, his latest, and worst, ordeal had made him stronger mentally and physically. He had a way to go to get where he wanted to be, but he looked ahead to having a full off-season to get himself ready for the Olympic push.

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