To the Edge
Less than two years after a liver transplant saved his life, U.S. snowboarder Chris Klug is ready to carve a path to Olympic glory
By Phil Taylor
Chris Klug has carved paths into many a mountain, but one path is etched into him. Beginning at his sternum, the 16-inch pink line travels straight down, headed for his navel, before veering off toward his right hip. You can imagine Klug making the same sharp turn as he races down a slope on his snowboard, determined to win or wipe out trying -- "going for the cash or the crash," as he puts it. The scar represents the greatest journey of Klug's life, one that no trip down a snow-covered hillside, not even one that wins him an Olympic medal, will ever match.
In April 2000 Klug was pondering death as the stabbing pain from a rare, degenerative liver disease grew more acute. More than 20 pounds melted off his 6'3", 215-pound frame, and he could do nothing but hope for the transplant that was his only chance for survival. Three months later a compatible liver was found and he was on the operating table in Denver; seven weeks after that he was back on the slopes. Now the perfect place to end his journey is in sight -- the Olympic medal platform for the men's parallel giant slalom. "I've been given the gift of life," Klug says. "To come from where I was to where I am now is a miracle. Capping it all off with a gold medal is almost more than I could wish for." Then Klug stops and flashes a leading-man smile. "Almost more than I could wish for," he says.
Klug, 29, has been dreaming of gold ever since he finished sixth in the giant slalom at the 1998 Games in Nagano, where snowboarding made its Olympic debut. He was tied for second, .07 of a second behind Jasey-Jay Anderson of Canada, but on his second and final run he clipped a gate with his left arm, which cost him precious tenths and a medal. Klug's disappointment was tempered by his knowledge that he was likely to return four years later as a favorite in the event. The knowledge that he had primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a disease that attacks the bile ducts in the liver, was hardly a factor, to him. After all, his body had never failed him before. It had never kept him from pursuing a lifestyle of almost perpetual athletic motion, which included surfing, mountain biking and basketball as well as skiing and snowboarding. He had even been an all-state high school quarterback in Bend, Ore. When he was diagnosed with PSC, in '93, he took the news with a no-worries, surfer-dude calm. "I felt great, and I had no symptoms," he says. "The doctors said that I'd probably need a transplant somewhere down the road, but I thought that meant way down the road. I thought, Great, dude. I'll see you in 20 or 30 years."
His cavalier attitude toward the disease was bolstered by his continuing success on the snowboarding circuit. He is the U.S. champion in the slalom, he took the Grand Prix overall Alpine championship in 2000, and he has five career top five World Cup finishes in addition to his sixth-place finish in Nagano. "He was feeling great and winning races, and at the same time he was being told that he was sick," says Klug's father, Warren. "It was hard for him to reconcile those things. I think in his mind he was saying, Are they sure they've got the right guy?"
Klug's outlook changed on Nov. 2, 1999. He was driving from Salt Lake City to his home in Aspen, Colo., National Public Radio his only company, when he heard the news: Walter Payton was dead. Klug had grown up cheering Payton, the Chicago Bears' Hall of Fame running back, but that wasn't why Klug felt a connection to him. It was because Payton had suffered from PSC. Klug had written to him when Payton announced that he had the disease. Don't worry, he told Payton. I've had PSC for years. People don't die from PSC. Now Klug had proof that they could die, that he could die. He pulled to the side of the road in tears, the first time he had cried over his disease, and called his father on his cell phone. "What," he asked, "does this mean for me?"
From that moment Klug took his disease seriously. The liver produces bile; in PSC patients the bile ducts become scarred and inflamed, and the disease can lead to liver cancer, recurrent infections in the bile ducts or cirrhosis of the liver, the last of which is often found in alcoholics. In fact, before doctors diagnosed Klug's PSC, which strikes only one in 10,000 people, they looked at his liver function and asked if he drank heavily. "What are you guys talking about?" he said. "I hardly even sauce it."
By the time Payton died, Klug had begun to feel symptoms of the disease. He began having the bile-duct infections, and he had to cut short a surfing vacation in the spring of 2000 because of intense pain in his side. He went into the hospital to have his bile ducts cleaned out, a procedure he'd had several times before, but this time the doctors told him it was useless. There were no more temporary measures that would help. "That hit us like a ton of bricks because we knew what it meant -- a transplant," says Warren.
After three months of waiting, Klug finally got the call that would save his life. The moment was bittersweet: His chance at life had been made possible by someone else's death. The donor was a teenage boy who had been killed by a gunshot to the head. (Klug later wrote a letter of gratitude to the boy's family and has become a vocal advocate for organ donation.)
Klug came through the six-hour operation with no complications, and if there had been an Olympic record for swift recoveries, he surely would have challenged it. According to Dr. Igal Kam, who performed the surgery on Klug at University of Colorado Hospital in Denver, the average hospital stay after a liver transplant is 12 days. Klug was out in four. His doctors warned him to wait six weeks before trying to work out, but within a week he was riding a stationary bike and doing as much exercise as he could without tearing the incision that had been closed with 35 staples. He moved on to hiking, then mountain biking and, at last, less than two months after his surgery Klug stood atop a glacier on Mount Hood in Oregon, ready to take his first snowboarding run since the operation. The sky was cloudless, the air crisp. The day was perfect, but Klug was afraid. What if he fell? Would he rip open his scar? Would he damage his new liver? He started gingerly, trying to get a feel for the snow again. Before the day was out, he had made 10 trips down the mountain, each one a little more daring than the last. He hadn't taken any "crash and burn" runs, but he felt strong. The final step came a few days later, when he lost control of his board and fell. He flipped over, twisting and turning before he struck the snow. "I lay there, waiting for some kind of pain or weird sensation," he says, "but there was nothing, at least nothing more than I would have felt before I got sick. That's when I knew I was O.K., I was back."
Although he is the top American male in the parallel giant slalom, Klug is facing imposing competition, including Mathieu Bozzetto of France, winner of the past two parallel World Cup championships; Dejan Kosir of Slovenia, who has been among the top riders on the World Cup tour for the last two years; and France's Nicolas Huet, who won two World Cup parallel giant slaloms in 2001, the only rider to have won more than one. Klug and the U.S. coaches believe, however, that he is more prepared for competition than ever. "Physically, he's all the way back, as strong as he ever was," says Nick Smith, an assistant coach for the U.S. snowboard team. "Mentally, he's even stronger because he has freed so much of his mind from worry. He's ready to focus totally on winning the gold."
That's not entirely true. Since the transplant Klug has expanded his focus. It now takes in not only the result but also the journey. "There would be a great feeling of accomplishment if I win the gold," he says, "but there's more to it than that." There is no medal for stepping into the starting gate, but for Klug, getting there is a victory just the same.