Chris Klug riding for life |

Chris Klug riding for life

Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times

ASPEN “Ride of Your Life,” a new documentary film about Aspen snowboarder Chris Klug, is an unusual mix of elements. Klug describes the hour-long film as “part reality TV, part ‘Jackass,’ and part Warren Miller.” And that probably leaves out the heart of the film – the impassioned promotional pitch on organ-donation awareness.That combination of facets roughly reflects the rough, and ultimately triumphant path Klug has traveled. After being diagnosed in his 20s with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a disease of the bile duct, Klug spent seven years on the waiting list for a liver transplant. For three months of that wait, he was at the top of the list for an organ donation, due to his deteriorating condition. Klug underwent transplant surgery in July 27000; a year and a half later, he was on the podium in Salt Lake City, the bronze medal winner in the parallel giant slalom at the 2002 Olympics.There is another way of breaking down “Ride of Your Life,” which was directed and produced by local filmmaker Joel Lee. Its attention is split between Klug the pro snowboarder (and avid surfer and skilled mountain-biker), and Klug the transplant survivor (and devoted spokesman for the cause of organ donation). They can easily be seen as two opposing story lines – the health issues battling with the pursuit of an Olympic medal (and continued life). But Klug says the power of his story is in how the two prominent strands of his life come together, that he is an organ recipient who has not only survived, but competed and succeeded at the top level of physical activity.”We’re trying to convey two different messages,” said the 34-year-old Klug. “The first being that transplants work, that you can return to a healthy, productive lifestyle after a transplant. And second, of organ-donation awareness. Encouraging people to think about it and share their decision. To talk about organ donations, and let their wishes be known.”

Klug will present “Ride of Your Life” in its first valley screening Saturday, April 21, at the Wheeler Opera House. (The free event will be preceded and followed by music from local band The Coyote Gospel, whose music is featured in the film. The pre-show concert starts at 7:30 p.m., followed by the film at 8 p.m. and more music from 9-10 p.m.) As an example of the potential success of transplants, Klug’s version seems almost ripped from the comic books. Tall, muscular, and with perfectly trimmed hair and a chin that seems cut more from steel than flesh, Klug resembles a superhero. He’s got a demeanor to match; it seems like it would be harder to knock the smile from his face than to beat him down the mountain. Klug has continued to race on the international snowboard circuit; his hope is to conclude his career in Vancouver – site of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Though his daily routine includes rounds of anti-rejection pills and keeping an eye on his liver enzymes, his is a healthy life.”I’m relatively asymptomatic, active and pursuing my dream,” he said. “And I’m facing the question: Is it possible to return to the life that I love? So hopefully someone will see this and say, ‘OK, I can bounce back from this. It might not be easy, but it’s possible.'””Ride of Your Life” shows Klug in action, sharing himself as an example. A good part of the film, and the most touching part, captures Klug visiting with two young women in hospital rooms as they wait for their new organs, and then as they recover from the surgery and head into the next stage of their lives. The sense of hope they get from Klug’s story is palpable.”I’m hoping my story lets people hang in there,” said Klug. “Just because you see me surfing or pushing the envelope in the film, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. But they see it is possible. And that’s all I want them to know.”It’s almost a cliché to say that surviving a near-death can, in the end, make for a better life. In the film, Klug says that his experience gave him a fresh perspective on the preciousness of life, and taught him to focus on the important things in life. (The film also reveals that his zeal for life was impressive to begin with. In an interview with his parents, Aspenites Warren and Kathy Klug gush about what a determined, high-spirited kid Chris has always been.)But is it possible that, in this case, a potentially fatal disease and a liver transplant surgery made for a better athlete? Klug’s coach observes, and others repeat, that what sets Klug apart as a competitor is the enjoyment he gets out of not only racing, but training. And the pleasure only grew after he returned to the slopes following his transplant.

“Without a doubt, it got more enjoyable,” said Klug, who was snowboarding seven weeks after the operation. “It allowed me to not sweat the small stuff, and not take a day of riding for granted. You make the most of every run.”It gives you a whole new perspective. It makes you realize what’s important – your family, your friends, your faith. And that riding is the icing on the cake. You don’t take a single turn for granted.”

Even before the diagnosis of primary sclerosing cholangitis, Klug had some practice in overcoming adversity. He was born with underdeveloped lining of his lungs, a condition which threatened his life almost before it started. Growing up in Vail, and then Bend, Ore., Klug suffered from “horrible” asthma, the biggest consequence of which was that he was forced to skip his scheduled appearance as Captain Hook in a fourth-grade production of “Peter Pan.” Asthma didn’t stop him from launching headfirst into snowboarding. After seeing his first snowboard, when he was 9 or 10, he knew he’d be spending time with the moon boots, primitive binding systems and loads of duct tape that marked the then-nascent sport.”That’s skateboarding on snow,” said Klug, of his first reaction to seeing a snowboarder. “That’s for me. I tried it, and the skis were history.” “Ride of Your Life” features a short clip of Klug in an early competition. And yes, launching a few inches above the lip of a halfpipe made for a promising snowboarder in those days.

Body issues followed Klug into his competitive years. Foot problems caused him to seriously contemplate curtailing his career as a snowboarder. A blown-out knee, suffered in 1998, actually did put him on the sidelines for a season.”But I’ve always had a determined attitude about facing these challenges,” he said. “I’ve tried to face these things with that attitude my whole life.”Klug’s return to snowboarding began almost as soon as he emerged from the O.R. at Denver’s University Hospital. “I’m asking [Dr. Igal Kam, the hospital’s chief of liver transplant] a thousand questions a minute, just firing them at him,” said Klug. Chief among these were if and when he could start training again. “And he said, ‘Chris, we don’t know. Slow down. It’s never been done. But if anyone can do it, you can.'”Klug now uses that determination in the cause of organ donation. In 2004, he founded the Chris Klug Foundation, which is devoted primarily to spreading awareness of organ donation and helping recipients and their families in their recovery. Among the Foundation’s programs is Donor Dudes, a youth outreach program that uses Klug’s holy trinity of sports – snowboarding, surfing and skateboarding – as a way to raising consciousness about organ donation. Donor Dudes has presented some 25 events to date. The foundation recently hired a part-time executive director.

“Ride of Your Life” is another promotional piece in Klug’s mission to make getting a liver, or any organ, easier than it was for him five years ago. And while phrases like “organ-donation awareness” seem constantly perched on his lips, Klug hasn’t tired of the work.”That’s part of the responsibility of getting a second chance,” he said. “To share the message and honor donors.” Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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