Friday, February 15, 2002
Updated: February 16, 7:42 PM ET
Handling adversity what Chris Klug is all about
By Anne Marie Cruz
ESPN The Magazine
PARK CITY, Utah -- Polio, scarlet fever and double pneumonia hadn't stopped Wilma Rudolph. No ankle sprain stood a chance. So when Rudolph tweaked her ankle tripping over a water main the day before her first race at the 1960 Summer Games, she taped up, bore down and sprinted to three Olympic golds.
Forty-two years later, Chris Klug knew exactly how Wilma Rudolph felt.
After surviving knee surgery, near-fatal liver disease and then a successful liver transplant, Klug now faced the final run of the bronze-medal round of the snowboard parallel giant slalom with a broken ankle strap on his boot.
A busted strap meant Klug couldn't exert any pressure on his board. He'd have no power to steer, to edge -- or to win.
With only three minutes to go before the race, Klug's rival for the bronze, Nicolas Huet of France, waited patiently for Chris to jerry-rig the spinning rivets of his boots closed with wire and duct tape.
"I don't want to win this thing by you defaulting," Huet told his friend, his coaches nodding in agreement. Klug thanked them, but he was so sketched out, he nearly forgot a key piece of gear when he scurried up to the starting gate.
"Arggh!" Klug shouted. "Gloves! I need gloves!"
Meanwhile, Klug's family and 100 of their Colorado friends from Aspen and Steamboat huddled together. Sunshine burned through their sunglasses as they squinted at the specks of people readying the course for the final run. They grabbed onto each other, their desperate optimism manifested in a sea of huge blue foam No. 1 fingers pointing toward the top of the course.
"Open up that can of whupass!" shrieked Dr. Carlin Colker, one of the men responsible for Klug's recovery program. "Open up that can! You got plenty left! Huet's tiring out!"
Klug certainly wasn't tiring out. Nineteen months ago, he hadn't even wasted a week in the hospital while surgeons cut him open, sewed him back up and sent him home after only four days with a new liver in his gut. His veins had held a river of toxins during the months leading up to the transplant as a rare liver disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis had almost totally choked off his bile ducts. The body of this former quarterback was drained. Yet he visited the gym religiously, peering at the weight machines through yellowed eyes.
But with that new, perfectly healthy organ, Klug felt reborn. And less than two months later, in October 2000, he packed a snowboard and headed to Mount Hood in Oregon to hit the slopes.
So now, the day after National Organ Donor Day, it was no wonder that every time Klug looked done -- trailing by .75 of a second with one run left, nearly missing a gate after leaning too far over on the steep pitch at the top -- he somehow managed to hang on. Through the Sweet 16, through the Elite Eight, and into the bronze-medal race.
But concern over the broken ankle strap spread through the Klug contingent, even though he led the Frenchman by .15 of a second.
"Missy, we need advice here," said Warren Klug, Chris' overwhelmed father. Missy April, Chris' girlfriend of eight years, could only blink at him.
"We'll be fine," said older bro Jim. "This is good. This just makes it that much more interesting."
Jim leaned forward against the railing, his head bowed in a quick prayer. Then he looked up, quieted by the tangle of nerves and adrenaline coursing through his body. "You can do this, Chrisser," he urged, pounding one fist on top of the other. "Podium! Podium!"
Suddenly, Warren looked down at the railing beneath him.
"What are we doing with this flag here?" he asked, gesturing to the white and red Swiss flag draped over the fence. "Where's the American flag?"
"Get the American flag!" someone ordered. Soon, Dad was handed an Old Glory attached to a ski pole instead of a flag pole. Jim drove it firmly into the snow, and they held the banner against the railing as Chris' name echoed over the PA.
"You know what time it is!" yelled Dr. Colker. "It's Klug time!"
"KLUUUUUUUGGGG!" the mob around him responded, lowing like an agitated herd.
The timing beeps sounded over the tense throng. "Are you ready?" Jim yelled to Missy, shaking her by the shoulders.
Then Chris tipped forward out of the gate, serpentining quickly through the opening stretch of the blue course, as Huet twisted and turned alongside him on through the maze of red flags. Fifteen-hundredths of a second was barely a blink of a lead. But they were neck-and-neck coming into the middle section. A smile crept onto Klug's face. When he hit the flats -- his favorite part of the course -- he knew he had won the bronze.
As Klug crossed the finish, his family nearly bent the metal fence in half, the joy uncontainable. Jim and Missy leaned far over the metal railing, shrieking their throats out. Dad bearhugged Missy and Mom, while his sister Hillary clasped onto her friends, tears stuck to her cheeks.
Chris twirled around to point emphatically back at the amorphous mass of bobbing fingers pointing back at him, as everyone whistled and hooted. "Chris! Chris! Chris!" they chanted.
Klug wasn't supposed to medal, not up against the battery of decorated Europeans (this time, Philipp Schoch of Switzerland and Sweden's Richard Richardsson took the gold and silver).
"You're the best," said dad to son, hermetically sealed in a hug. "You're No. 1. You're the Comeback Kid!"
Battered knees, ravaged liver and a strained ankle strap hadn't stopped him. Klug had duct-taped up, bore down and won.
Anne Marie Cruz writes for ESPN The Magazine.