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Snowboarder Overcomes the Odds to Return to Olympic Games

February 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Chris Klug is back in pursuit of Olympic gold in Vancouver after receiving a life-saving liver transplant and winning the battle for qualification that kept him out of the 2006 games. The 37-year-old snowboarder took home the bronze in the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight: an Olympic profile.

“NewsHour” correspondent Tom Bearden reports on a snowboarder who beat the odds to make it to this year’s Games.

TOM BEARDEN: The snowboarder emerged from the fog at Aspen Highlands groaning with the effort to carve tight turns around the slalom gates on the steep hillside.

This is 37-year-old Chris Klug, training for his third Olympic Games. Klug has been riding since he was 10, one of the pioneers of the sport. He was there in Nagano, Japan, in 1998 for the first Olympic snowboard competition. He placed sixth in the giant slalom. But there was a cloud hanging over him even then.

CHRIS KLUG, U.S. Olympic snowboarder: I was diagnosed in the early ’90s through a routine physical. And, after we finally pinpointed what it was, they told me that, one day, I would need a liver transplant.

And I will never forget when they told me that. I was looking around the room, going, well, who are you talking to? You can’t possibly be talking to me. I feel like a million bucks. I’m out there riding my snowboard, and doing all these fun cross-training activities, and I feel great.

TOM BEARDEN: Klug’s liver continued to deteriorate after his first Olympic appearance. His wife, Missy, remembers.

MISSY KLUG, wife of Chris Klug: Chris was on the transplant waiting list at a critical stage for three months. But he was on years before that. It’s just they kind of move you up as you get sicker. So, watching him get sick was really tough, because he’s so active, so energetic, so positive. And to see him kind of lose a little bit of that was tough.

TOM BEARDEN: By 2000, Klug and his doctors realized they couldn’t wait any longer.

CHRIS KLUG: And I did everything in my power to get ready for that surgery. But, then, when I finally got the call, I wasn’t quite as confident as I had been in the months and weeks leading up to it. I was scared for the first time.

And I will never forget when I was in the pre-op room and the anesthesia was about to take effect, and my family was in the room with me. I was looking up at them going, am I going to make it through this? It was scary.

MISSY KLUG: I was kind of the strong person going through this whole process, and always positive, and, you know, didn’t want to give him any bleak outlooks or possibilities of death or anything.

But, you know, it’s in the back of your mind. And when he — when he was rolled away for surgery was really the first time I completely broke down, and just hysterically lost it. And I thought, in my mind, it was like, I might not see him again.

CHRIS KLUG: After I woke up from that six-hour surgery that a new engine got dropped in me, it seemed like I was running around with a four-cylinder and I got a brand new V8 dropped into me, and I wanted to go out and test-drive that new engine right away.

I remember being wheeled out of the surgery. And, when I finally woke up, I was at the recovery floor there, and I had both arms in the air, yelling, “I rule.” And it was a bizarre thing to say, but that’s how I felt. You know, I knew I was going to make it back.

TOM BEARDEN: But most people thought he would never ride a snowboard again. Klug proved them wrong. He was back on the slopes only seven weeks after the surgery. In 2002, he took the bronze medal at the Salt Lake City Games.

ROB ROY, coach, America’s Snowboard Team: So, you know there’s a trench now.

CHRIS KLUG: Yes, exactly, yes.

TOM BEARDEN: Rob Roy is Klug’s longtime coach and mentor.

What changes did you see in him after the operation?

ROB ROY: Well, it was — it’s incredibly dramatic, really. You know, I suspect that Chris was suffering from his disease for a number of years before it was actually diagnosed. You know, he probably weighed 100 and — I’m going to 160 to 175 pounds, no more, had a hard time eating.

But now here’s a guy who’s had a liver transplant who weighs 220 pounds. His body fat is so low, it’s incredible. So, we’re talking about muscle mass only. And it’s — it’s all been muscle mass. He eats huge meals, and eats them at a relatively normal pace. And he’s fitter than he ever was.

TOM BEARDEN: After his recovery, Klug has started his own foundation focused on educating the public about the importance of organ and tissue donation. Earlier this week, Klug was winding up his preparations for the 2010 Olympics under Rob Roy’s watchful eye.

ROB ROY: Make sure you get there. Don’t sink so low that you can’t come up off it, unless you — just go, go. It’s got to be get it, go, you know?

TOM BEARDEN: But like a lot of times in his long career, Klug had to climb one more giant hurdle before he could make this year’s Olympics. He didn’t make the 2006 Games because of a dispute over Olympic qualification rules.

He spent the last four years training and competing, with the expectation of returning to Olympic competition in Vancouver. But, last year, Klug slipped to 25th in the world rankings. The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association announced it would no longer provide him with financial support, thinking he wouldn’t qualify for the Games.

CHRIS KLUG: Initially, I was shocked. You know, I — after I had just won the national championship last spring, I was one of only two riders to have a top eight in the Olympic discipline. And it was really surprising to me. And I was kind of frustrated and disappointed.

I got together with my teammates, and I really was determined to just make the most of it.

TOM BEARDEN: So, Klug started his own team.

ROB ROY: And I think Chris realized that there is maybe more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to getting snowboarders to the Olympics.

And so he, as you know, went out and found sponsors, hired coaches, including me, and put himself on the Olympic team one more time.

TOM BEARDEN: This year, Klug finished high enough in the five qualifying races to earn a spot back in the Olympics.

ROB ROY: It’s a miracle, really, when you think of where he was and what he’s been through over the last years. You know, here’s a guy who, last year, was probably ranked 25th in the world, something like that. And now he’s ranked, I think, in the top 10. And, frankly, I believe he’s riding like he’s in the top five. Is he a dark horse? Yes. But we love it that way.

CHRIS KLUG: How’s everybody doing?

CHRIS KLUG: What a crowd up here.

TOM BEARDEN: On Monday night, the town of Aspen threw a send-off party for Klug and the six other local residents who will compete in Vancouver. Whatever happens there, Klug plans to continue competing on the World Cup circuit until the end of the season. After that, he says he will think about hanging up his board and retiring.