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Thursday, February 14, 2002
 
Klug makes snowboard giant slalom finals

Associated Press


PARK CITY, Utah -- With one swift, successful trip down the mountain, snowboarder Chris Klug sent a message to the world.

It had nothing to do with winning or losing.

Klug added yet another amazing chapter to his recovery from liver-transplant surgery 19 months ago by qualifying for the finals of the Olympic parallel giant slalom Thursday.

Maria Kirchgasser
Maria Kirchgasser of Austria won the women's qualifying round Thursday of the women's parallel giant slalom snowboarding event, with the final set for Friday.

In the most fortuitous twist of all, he did it on National Organ Donor Day, a cause Klug has a tremendous interest in, for obvious reasons.

"I'm lucky to be here today," Klug said. "Without the gift of the donor family, I wouldn't be here today. They're the real heroes. I'm trying to get the message out."

The 29-year-old calls it a miracle that he's alive, let alone shredding down the mountain on a glorious day in which snowboard racers did their thing in front of about 16,000 spectators.

It was the biggest crowd they had ever seen in the stands before, and it included about 75 of Klug's friends and family. They stood near the finish line to cheer and hold up blue foam fingers that said, "Chris Klug, No. 1."

"We know him, so it was very easy for his family to believe he could do it," said Klug's brother, Jim. "I think it was a surprise to everybody else. I mean, what are the odds?"

As Klug reminded everyone who would listen, about 16 people on the transplant list die every day waiting for organs to become available.

He'll have another chance to use the Olympics as his platform Friday, when he'll be seeded 11th in the finals -- this sport's version of March Madness.

The 16 finishers are placed in an NCAA-tournament-like draw, with No. 1 vs. No. 16, No. 2 vs. No. 15 and so on. They race side-by-side twice, and the rider who either sweeps the races, or finishes with the lowest combined time in case of a split, advances to the next round.

"I've won from the first position and from the 16th position, and from almost everywhere in between," Klug said. "You've just got to go out there and play the game."

The seeding is based on times from one qualifying run. Klug took to the mountain first and finished in 37.17 seconds. A long wait ensued, but only 10 riders passed him, and he advanced.

Seeded first in the men's draw is Gilles Jaquet of France, who finished the course in 35.69 seconds. Next was Alexander Maier of Austria, the brother of the great alpine skiing star, Hermann Maier, who couldn't compete here because of injuries he sustained in a motorcycle accident last August.

"I talked to him last night, and he gave me some tips," Alexander Maier said. Asked to divulge the pointers, he demurred: "I'll tell you after the race tomorrow. Not now. They are too strong," he said.

Like Klug, Lisa Kosglow finds herself alone among Americans on the women's side. She qualified seventh, but American favorite Rosey Fletcher spun out early during the run and wound up 26th.

Fletcher was thought to have the best chance among American women to take a medal. But the popular Alaskan will sit out of the finals, along with countrywomen Sondra Van Ert (17th) and Lisa Odynski (27th).

"There's nothing I can do now," Fletcher said, a smile on her face, as she held back tears. "The race is over, I tried to do my best, and it didn't work out."

Maria Kirchgasser of Austria won qualifying in 41.44 despite feeling under the weather. In second, .01 seconds behind, was 1998 Olympic gold medalist Karine Ruby of France.

American men Jeff Greenwood (20th) and Peter Thorndike (27th) failed to qualify, and the farfetched dream of another American snowboarding sweep, a la the men's halfpipe Monday, was rendered impossible.

But there could still be magic on the mountain if Klug has his way Friday.

Nine years ago, the former high school football star was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare disorder that slowly eats away at the bile ducts' ability to function.

It was the same disease that killed Walter Payton on Nov. 1, 1999. Klug heard that news while driving to a training camp in Utah, and for the first time, he realized the seriousness of the disease, even though he hadn't yet felt any major effects.

"I was like, `All right, I can die from this,"' he said in an interview last month. "I cried. It was the first realization for me."

Over the next nine months, his condition got worse, then suddenly, he became a prime candidate for a liver transplant. His donor was a 13-year-old boy from the Denver area who had been accidentally shot in the head by a neighbor messing with a gun.

With their son brain dead, the child's parents were forced to make the most difficult decision of their lives. By choosing to donate their son's organs, they saved Klug's life, and the lives of several others in need of different transplants.

Klug's life, and his snowboarding career, remain in full bloom thanks to the family's generosity. He hasn't met the donors yet, but says every race he wins, and every moment he's alive, is dedicated to them.

"They've saved my life and allowed miracles like what I've gone through today," Klug said. "They've shown that dreams can be fulfilled."