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.
The world and all its possibilities were his to explore again. The only downside was thinking about the boy who'd been killed by a gun...the reason he was still alive. He'd heard that the donor had not always had the benefit of parental guidance. He thought about his "brother" Jason, a friend whom his parents had taken into their home, and how he'd done so well as a result of their love and expectations for him, especially compared to Jason's brother, Josh, who'd wound up in jail. Chris's mom might drive him crazy sometimes with her exuberance, but she knew what to say at the right moments, and he loved her. And then there was his dad, who'd been there at all his races as a youth, helping him achieve his dreams -- and when things looked darkest regarding his liver, made him believe that God would not abandon him. They both had taught him to be a participant in his own destiny.
The other boy had not had the same opportunities. Still, when it mattered, the boy's family, strangers to him, had given him the most important gift anyone ever had. But he couldn't find the words that seemed adequate to express his gratitude. In September, his father had penned his own two-page letter:
There are times in our lives when paths cross, totally unplanned and unexpectedly. Sudden events change things forever, or something happens that brings a drawn-out story to conclusion.
I believe firmly that God does not cause bad things to happen to us, but of course, we all go through bad things at times, and it seems that God allows it. We do not know why...I also believe that God does step into our lives at times.
I am the father of a boy who received a liver transplant in late July. The transplant saved his life...