Originally created 02/16/02

Klug wins bronze on ride of his life



PARK CITY, Utah _ A broken boot buckle? After all this - the degenerative liver disease, the wait for a transplant, the six-hour surgery, the recovery, the training, the runs to get into the final four of an Olympic snowboarding event - was it possible that Chris Klug's story would be stopped by, of all things, a broken boot buckle?

He laughed about it later.

"It was only appropriate," he said.

Of course, the fact that he had indeed won the bronze medal in the men's parallel giant slalom made it easy for Klug and 54 members of his extended family to laugh. And cry. And pour out all the emotions of a life that began 29 years ago with drama.

"This is a kid who was born sick," said his brother, Jim. "He spent his first eight months in the hospital. And he grew up with every excuse to be just average."

"He is everything I look up to," said his sister, Hillary.

"When he woke up after the surgery, he lifted up his hand and said, 'I rule,'" his father, Warren, said of the operation done just 18 months ago. "And now we get to see him do it again on the Olympic podium."

But not without some more drama. Even before the buckle snapped, he needed some help in the quarterfinal head-to-head meeting with Italy's Walter Feichter. After the first of two runs, he trailed Feichter by 75-100ths of a second. But on the second run, the Italian wiped out, allowing Klug to, well, one might be tempted to say "stay alive." But if ever there were a reminder that such a phrase was inappropriate, this was it.

Eighteen months ago, Klug was waiting for a liver transplant.

For a long time, he had thought he could live forever with primary sclerosing cholangitis. He had even written Walter Payton a letter, telling the former Bears star not to worry, that Klug was proof that you could beat the disease. Then, one day he was driving from this place, Salt Lake City, to his home in Aspen, Colo., when he heard on National Public Radio that Payton had died. He pulled off the road and cried. He called his father and asked, "What does this mean for me?"

Eventually, he went from being convinced that he was going to live to being convinced that he was going to die. He was put on a donor waiting list. That was the worst part. The waiting.

"Sixteen people a day die," he said. "I thought I was going to be one of those 16.."

Eventually, someone else's tragedy was his fortune. He was given the liver of a teenage boy who died from a gunshot wound to the head. He woke up after the surgery with 35 staples in his stomach covering a 16-inch incision.

"I knew I was better," he said. "You could just feel that something was different, better."

It took him a while to rule again. But not nearly as long as everyone expected. And there he was yesterday, surviving the scare against the Italian, losing to eventual gold medalist Philipp Schoch of Switzerland in the semifinals to set up his meeting with France's Nicolas Huet.

In some ways, this was tougher than being one of the two skiers in the gold-medal round.

"If you're in the gold medal round," he said, "you know at least you're going to walk away with a medal."

In this race, it was either bronze or fourth place.

Enter the boot buckle.

He finished the first of the two runs 15-100ths of a second ahead of Huet. But he felt his rear boot loosen. He looked down and saw a rivet spinning. A "pretty important" buckle was shot.

So he went into NASCAR pit mode, taking a piece of metal, some duct tape and manufacturing his own buckle. It wasn't perfect. And it certainly wasn't enough to keep him from feeling a little frazzled heading into the final run _ especially when he was running out of time to get ready.

Then he got a break from the Huet and the French team. Time.

"They were really patient and cool," he said. "They were like, 'Hey, 'We don't want to win this thing because you defaulted because of your boots.'"

He composed himself as much as possible _ nearly forgetting his gloves _ and took off, zig-zagging through the 546-meter course and beating Huet by 1.21 seconds. He pumped his fist to the sky, then against his chest, before heading to the section where his family and friends were waving dozens of giant blue foam fingers that said, "Go Chris Klug!"

"He's the comeback kid!" his father kept yelling. "He's the comeback kid!"

He rules.