Klug lives up bronze moment

Transplant survivor holds on with tape

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 16, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

PARK CITY, Utah -By all rights, Chris Klug should be dead right now.

Just ask him. He'll tell you as much. At 22, he had been found to have a rare degenerative liver disease, Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis. For seven years, he kept one ear on the phone, no matter where he went, waiting, hoping and praying for the call that would lift his death sentence. He needed a transplant or he was going to die.

"I thought I was going to die for sure," Klug said. "They anticipated I had about two months left, based on my blood type. The final month I was pretty scared."

And yet there was Klug yesterday, flying down the mountain on a snowboard, winning a bronze medal for the United States in the giant parallel slalom. Who could have ever imagined it? Who could have ever dreamed that the 29-year-old from Aspen, Colo., would still be smiling his million-dollar grin, much less doing it while winning an Olympic medal?

"This is definitely one of the most fun days I've ever experienced," Klug said. "After everything I've been through in the last year and a half, it's just an amazing feeling."

Sure Philipp Schoch of Switzerland grabbed the gold and Richard Richardsson of Sweden won the silver, but who outside their countries will ever remember? Yesterday was Klug's day; one of those rare moments in sports where no matter how many times you say it aloud, it's still tough to fathom. Chris Klug, organ-transplant survivor, won the 14th medal for the United States in the 2002 Winter Games, setting an American record and giving people chills in the process.

It wasn't easy, of course. It took a little luck and moxie in the slalom's head-to-head format, in which riders face off on two runs down the course with the best total time advancing. Klug charged into the quarterfinals after he was a mere five one-hundredths of a second faster than Canada's Jerome Sylvestre, then earned a spot in the semifinals when Italy's Walter Feichter fell despite holding a 1.5 second lead.

Even after he crashed into the fence against Schoch, missing a shot in the final, Klug still had plenty to overcome. In the first run in the bronze-medal final against France's Nicolas Huet, Klug broke a buckle on his left boot, and nearly had to be disqualified before he strapped himself to his board with some wire and duct tape.

"I just finally said the heck with it," said Klug, who has had the same boots for six years. "I told myself, `If this buckle is going to decide the difference between winning a medal or not, the hell with it.' I said, `If this is going to work out, it's going to work out. And if not, so be it.' "

He raced perfectly, pulling ahead of Huet down the final stretch, saying afterward he did it with a tear in his eye. When Klug crossed the finish line, he jumped into the stands and hugged his girlfriend, Missy April. "I wanted to tell her a belated happy Valentine's Day," he said. "I kind of didn't do much yesterday."

You can bet she forgave him. Just getting a hug from Klug yesterday would have been an impossibility were it not for the kindness of an Idaho family who agreed to sign off on organ donation after their 13-year-old son, Billy Flood, was accidentally shot to death. It was something Klug has thought a lot about since his surgery in July 2000. He takes doses of the drugs Rapamune and Prograf (twice a day) to keep his body from rejecting the liver; it's a daily reminder that someone made a tremendous sacrifice for him to get a second chance at life.

"I'm still a little uncomfortable with it all," Klug said. "I'm not sure I've come to grips with it quite yet. I'm really looking forward to meeting them and thanking them."

There are 80,000 people on transplant lists in the United States, Klug points out. About 16 of them die each day.

"I think it's really encouraging that maybe now I'm in the position to talk to a few people about organ donation, maybe get the message out there," Klug said. "I feel so lucky. The whole thing feels like a miracle."

In the women's final, France's Isabelle Blanc knocked off teammate Karine Ruby to win the gold medal in the debut of the women's parallel giant slalom. Blanc, who finished 22nd in the giant slalom in Nagano, Japan, said she would celebrate by singing a song in the Olympic Village she had composed for French teammate Regine Cavagnoud, who was killed in a ski accident in October. Italy's Lidia Trettel won the bronze. American Lisa Kosglow finished eighth.

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