The Kid Bounces Back

Page 13 of 18

On the September morning when the teen shooter was being lectured by the judge to act as if he had a conscience or face his wrath at sentencing two weeks later, Chris Klug stood at the top of a snowfield on Mt. Hood, Oregon, basking in the sun. His view of the Cascade Mountains was uninterrupted for hundreds of miles. Looking south, he could see the jutting volcanic peaks that guarded his old hometown of Bend: Three Sisters, Mt. Bachelor, Mt. Jefferson, and even the brooding presence of Black Butte, which as a teen he'd run up and down to get in shape for football.

So far, the comeback trail had been smooth, if arduous. Much as his mother had predicted, Chris had turned getting out of the hospital into a sporting event. He quickly set the record for laps around the transplant-floor hallways, often parading around with an IV pole in the company of family and friends who'd driven or flown in.

With the surgery over, Chris had finally talked about his disease with the media. There was no more need for secrecy, and, in fact, he wanted to use his status to publicize the need for organ donors. He'd had to wait nearly two and a half months after reaching the top of the list for his status level; he knew there were people on waiting lists who were dying every day because there weren't enough donors. His e-mail address was soon flooded with responses, many from people who were either suffering from PSC or had a loved one who was. He answered every e-mail and letter, moved in particular by those who said they had found hope for themselves in his story.

Still, he knew that the higher the podium, the more people he'd be able to reach. His hero, Lance Armstrong, who'd battled back from testicular cancer to win the Tour de France twice, had used his fame to raise money and awareness for cancer programs. Chris realized that the best way to do the same for organ-donor programs was at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, on a slope at the Park City ski resort.

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.

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.

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Steve Jackson