Aspen honors its Olympians |

Aspen honors its Olympians

Jennifer Davoren
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Just over a month ago, Aspen residents and visitors gathered to wish a group of hometown heroes good luck before a trip to Salt Lake City and the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.

On Sunday, those athletes were honored again as Aspen paid tribute to their contributions – those made to their sports as well as to the city.

An official city proclamation names March 3 “Chris Klug Day” in honor of the local snowboarder and bronze medalist, but Sunday was also used to honor skiers Katie Monahan, Casey Puckett and Alex Shaffer. Though Klug was the only athlete to medal, as well as the only athlete able to make it to Sunday’s ceremony, each one was honored during a nearly two-hour celebration in downtown Aspen.

The ceremony began in front of the Wheeler Opera House – the same spot where Aspen’s Olympians said goodbye last month before heading to Salt Lake.

Klug boarded a fire engine and, as he put it, “surfed” his way along a short parade route. His vehicle was flanked by contingents of his biggest fans. The parade was led by a group of Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club members and Aspen High School’s championship ski team, and tailed by a snowcat carrying his parents and extended family.

Klug and company ended their tour of the downtown core at the Silver Queen Gondola Plaza, where a group carrying both the American and Aspen flags led the bronze medalist to a stage full of fans. A host of speakers, including Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud and Aspen Skiing Co. CEO Pat O’Donnell, braved rapidly dropping temperatures to honor the athletes.

Chris Keleher, an Aspen High School teacher as well as one of the city’s torch bearers, spoke briefly about the inspirational trip he made with the Olympic flame – as well as the phenomenal trip Aspen’s Olympians made.

“We watched them only two weeks ago, doing their own inspiring,” he said.

Klug’s efforts seemed to be the most awe-inspiring around AHS, Keleher reported. Klug, who underwent a liver transplant just 19 months before his Olympic performance, has become a champion for organ-donor organizations since his surgery. His involvement with these organizations have spurred at least 10 students to approach Keleher and ask about organ-donation programs, the teacher reported.

Others honored Klug for, as Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper said, his efforts to turn “a life-or-death struggle into a lifetime achievement.”

“In Salt Lake City, Chris Klug became the embodiment of the human spirit,” said Greg Lewis, emcee for Sunday’s event.

Klug’s arms were laden with gifts from appreciative fans, but the crowd seemed particularly impressed by one in particular – a lifetime season pass from the Skico. O’Donnell said the pass was the first of its kind ever presented.

Klug took the stage toward the end of the ceremony to thank those who not only cheered his Olympic triumphs, but who helped him through the medical crisis that threatened his life.

“You guys were always there – thank you forever for that,” he said.

After congratulating Monahan and Puckett for their efforts in Salt Lake City, Klug helped wrap up the afternoon with the hope of yet another celebration – the one that will be held after the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.

“This is so much fun,” he said. “Hopefully in 2006, [we] will bring some medals home and do it all over again.”

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