Aspen boarder pulls off incredible comeback to medal
February 18, 2002
PARK CITY, Utah – Racing imitates life for Aspen snowboarder Chris Klug.
In a roller-coaster ride of a race Friday, Klug rebounded from a setback in the semifinals to capture the bronze medal in the men’s Olympic parallel giant slalom at Park City Mountain Resort.
The Comeback Kid’s latest triumph came a year-and-a-half after he received a lifesaving liver transplant, and a day after National Organ Donor Awareness Day.
“It’s a miracle and a dream come true,” said Klug, who set a goal to reach the Olympic podium in Salt Lake after settling for sixth place in 1998 at Nagano, Japan. “What else can you ask for? A year-and-a-half ago, we’re lying on our backs thinking we weren’t going to live, and here we are now with a bronze medal around our necks. I still can’t believe it.”
But Klug’s family and friends weren’t as shocked. The Klug clan, a contingent of 50-plus family and friends (and doctors), staked out in the finish area all day, waving oversized blue-foam fingers inscribed with “Team U.S.A. Chris Klug.” Extremely excited, yes, but not surprised.
“He’s always had to overcome challenges since he was born, health-wise, so we’re not surprised at all,” said Jim Klug, Chris’ older brother. “Whatever it takes, he’s going to do it. That’s the story of his life.”
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Klug, 29, entered Friday’s 16-man elimination finals as the No. 11 qualifier. And aside from the Klug clan, few predicted he’d even make it that far. The three-time World Cup parallel giant slalom champion has clearly struggled this season. His best World Cup PGS result was eighth place, and he only qualified for the Olympic team last month at the last minute. Nevertheless, in the weeks leading up to the Olympics, a quiet confidence surrounded Klug and his confidantes.
“All the magazines in the last couple weeks have come out and said he’s a longshot for a medal,” said Klug’s mom, Kathy, a teacher at Aspen High. “I read it all, and I’ll tell you the truth, I said to myself, ‘They don’t know my son.'”
“Coming in nobody picked me for the podium,” added Klug, “and that was fine with me. Like I’ve said before, I’ve gone up against worse odds. But after I qualified, I didn’t care where I was [seeded] because I knew I had another gear and I was able to continue to play the game.”
On the road to the bronze, Klug narrowly beat Canada’s Jerome Sylvestre by .05 seconds to advance to the quarterfinal round.
In the Olympic PGS, racers are paired off according to their qualifying times: No. 1 faces No. 16, No. 2 faces No. 15, and so on. The pairs then race simultaneously against each other in two runs, switching courses for each run, with the faster rider advancing to the next round based on the total two-run time. Eventually, only two remain to decide who rides off with the gold and who settles for silver.
In Klug’s second heat, against Walter Feichter of Italy, he took a wide line on the top steep section and fell behind. Then while trying to make up time on the flats at the bottom, Klug washed out on a heelside turn and lost by a hefty .75 seconds. But in the second run, Feichter missed a gate in the transition out of the steeps, affording Klug a comfortable cruise into the final four.
“A lot of the adversity I’ve faced in the last few years, I knew it’d work out in the end,” Klug said, “and I’ve been reminded of it in the last few weeks. Before I got the transplant, I was getting sicker and sicker, and I was starting to think I might not make it. But I kept the attitude that the window was still open; I’m not dead yet. And that was true yesterday when I was down to Feichter – the window’s still open and I’m not giving up. That’s what the Olympics are all about.”
Klug’s run at the gold medal halted in the semifinal round. Facing Swiss rider Philipp Schoch – the eventual gold medalist – Klug got loose on the steeps and entered the flats trailing by a half-gate’s length. Klug never found his rhythm, washing out around several gates, and lost by 1.49 seconds, an age in PGS.
In the deciding second run against Schoch, on opposite courses this time, Klug charged out of the start hut, aggressively trying to reel him in and advance to the gold medal final.
“He was riding pretty strong and I had to have two good runs,” Klug said. “Then I started with a deficit in the second run and I took some chances and ended up in the fence.”
Schoch advanced to the gold medal finals against Richard Richardsson of Sweden, while Klug dropped into the bronze medal final versus France’s Nicolas Huet.
“It wasn’t easy putting it [the semifinal loss] behind me, but I had to. I’d worked too hard to come up with no medal and come up short. I was obviously frustrated but I had to move on. I didn’t want to come home with fourth place – my goal’s been to get on the podium after what happened in Nagano.”
In the first run against Huet, Klug was cleaner and faster than his two bobbled runs against Schoch. Still, Huet enjoyed a slight lead in the first run until Klug shifted gears at the very bottom and sped ahead to win by .15 seconds.
During the run, Klug broke an instep buckle on his rear boot. Klug and ski tech Jay Cooper tried to replace it, but couldn’t.
“We couldn’t get the buckle off and the start referee is counting down, like 70 seconds and before I knew it, he said 30 seconds and we didn’t have the damn thing fixed. Finally, we put a pipe fastener on it with some duct tape; a total jerry-rig. But that’s how I started, with my moon boots and duct tape 19 years ago, so it’s only fitting that in the bronze medal finals I had to rely on duct tape again,” Klug said.
After nearly forgetting his gloves, Klug said he put the buckle problem out of his mind.
“I said to hell with it. I’m riding too good to have this one buckle derail me from a medal.”
The fix held for the final run to determine the bronze medalist – Klug and Huet’s eighth racing run of the day – and Klug ran away with a 1.36 second victory.
As the only American in the field, fans in the base area rallied around him all day. And when Klug clinched the hardware, the place erupted.
“They were really supportive and it made a huge difference for me.
“This could be my biggest comeback yet. Yeah, it may just be,” Klug acknowledged. “But I may have another one in me. We’ll see. I’d like to come back in four years and upgrade my medal.”
On Friday night, Klug wore his medal to bed, all 15 minutes worth, as a party for him at the U.S.A. House in Park City ran all night.
“Everyone’s lost their voices,” he said. “It’s hysterical. It’s all sign language around here.
“The way today’s events went are a good example of Chris,” noted Aspen Club trainer Bill Fabrocini, who helped him rehab from knee surgery, then the transplant operation. “And the bronze medal is more meaningful than the gold because he had to fight for it.
“He was up and down and he had to keep fighting,” continued Fabrocini, who was in the crowd Friday. “It’s the same thing with his knee rehab. At the time, we didn’t know how far back he could come. And before the liver transplant, we didn’t know what to expect, either. But he kept fighting and believing, and when he didn’t believe enough, [longtime girlfriend] Missy April believed for him and his friends believed for him, and it’s just like today when he was down.
“We all knew he was going to do it.”