Snowboarder's Liver Transplant Revs 'New Engine' Snowboarder Chris Klug's career almost ended after the 1998 Olympics because of liver disease. But he got a transplant a decade ago, and went on to take a bronze medal in 2002 — likely the only Olympic medal won by a transplant recipient. Now, Klug is back once again for the Vancouver games.
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Snowboarder's Liver Transplant Revs 'New Engine'

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Snowboarder's Liver Transplant Revs 'New Engine'

Snowboarder's Liver Transplant Revs 'New Engine'

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On the last day of Olympic competition, the snowboard Alpine-style races will whittle down competitors with the eventual winner racing the course 10 times. Chris Klug, a U.S. snowboard racer and liver transplant recipient, and past Olympic medalist, hopes to be on the podium with the gold.

From Aspen Public Radio, Mitzi Rapkin has a profile.

Unidentified Man: Okay, run six. Ready, go.

MITZI RAPKIN: Snowboarder Chris Klug pushes himself out of the starting game. On run six, hes not even half way through a practice earlier this month. Eventually, he is going to do 14 runs.

(Soundbite of screaming)

RAPKIN: Hell reach speeds of about 40 miles per hour, carving wide turns through gates, zigzagging the slope.

Mr. CHRIS KLUG (Snowboarder): Well, thats so fun.

Unidentified Man: Yeah, awesome. Just when you make the hillside, just think to yourself, be patient.

RAPKIN: Klug is focusing on his technique at this practice. At 37 years old, he's the elder of the American snowboard team.

Mr. KLUG: I got a few gray hairs in my beard and on my head. Yeah, I'm definitely the veteran of the snowboarding circuit.

RAPKIN: The truth is his gray hairs are hard to see. His wide smile, defined jaw line, hazel eyes and lean six-foot-three-inch frame are his most obvious traits. He is a veteran snowboarder though. He started at age 11 and dreamed of going to the Olympics before snowboard racing was even an Olympic event.

In the late '80s he helped establish the growing sport and made it to the Olympics in 1998 for snowboarding's debut. But what the world didn't known then was Klug was fighting a life-threatening liver disease. His mother, Kathy Klug, recalls the '98 games in Japan, where he won sixth place in alpine snowboarding.

Ms. KATHY KLUG: When we think of '98, we think of it with these great mixed emotions of joy, of him realizing his dream and then the sort of realization that this was a dream come true and perhaps the end of his career.

RAPKIN: The end of his career because his liver disease was getting worse. Just two years after the games, he was weak, jaundiced and near death. He was on the high-priority wait list for three months. Finally, a suitable donor was found.

Mr. KLUG: You know, I felt like they dropped a brand-new engine in me. I'm way healthier and way stronger than I ever was before my transplant and very grateful for that and grateful to my donor for my second chance.

RAPKIN: One of the first things he asked after his surgery was when he could snowboard again. A year and a half later, he won the bronze in the 2002 Olympics. The IOC believes he's the only transplant recipient to ever win an Olympic medal. Now he's focused on Vancouver.

Mr. KLUG: Having the opportunity to return to my third Winter Olympics and contend for another medal is something personally I really wanted to do. And hopefully I can, you know, vie for another medal. Hopefully a different color.

RAPKIN: His coach is Rob Roy from Bend, Oregon, and has been working with Chris for more than two decades. Here's what he hopes for Klug when he stands at the start gate in Vancouver.

Mr. ROB ROY (Coach): I would just like to have him stand in the starting gate and just think to himself, this has been an incredible ride. The fact that he's a mature athlete, the fact that he's been through so many things, including his liver transplant, for him to come back and fight his way back to the Olympic team in and of itself, I think, is just incredible. But beyond that, I think he has a legitimate chance of being on the podium.

RAPKIN: The opportunity to take home a medal isn't the only reason Klug is competing in his third Olympics.

Mr. KLUG: You know, I was kind of on my death bed one day and out riding my snowboard less than two months later. You know, I think that's one of the reasons I really wanted to return, was this amazing opportunity and platform to promote life-saving donation.

RAPKIN: For NPR News, I'm Mitzi Rapkin in Aspen, Colorado.

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