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Olympic Transplant Recipient Promotes Organ Donation

US parallel giant slalom snowboarder Chris Klug
US parallel giant slalom snowboarder Chris Klug

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Parke Brewer

United States parallel giant slalom snowboarder Chris Klug has more than just a desire to win an Olympic medal in Vancouver. He also is spreading the word about the need for organ donors, as he himself is a transplant recipient.  

American Chris Klug is by no means your typical Olympic snowboarder. In fact, he's not your typical recreational snowboarder either.

In a sport that is mostly popular with a younger generation, Klug is 37-years-old and is married. He is also much bigger than your typical snowboarder, standing 1.91 meters tall and weighing more than 100 kilograms.

Klug has been snowboarding since 1983, before most of his competitors were even born. He finished sixth in the giant slalom event when snowboarding made its debut at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. He is now is ready to compete in his third Olympics.

"You know, I was an avid skateboarder as a kid," Klug said. "I had a big half-pipe in my backyard and that's what kind of drew me to snowboarding initially. I looked and I said, hey, that's skateboarding on snow. That's perfect for me."

And he's still at it 27 years later in a career that has included not only injuries like a broken collar bone, broken ankles and torn knee ligaments, but also a liver transplant. In fact, Chris Klug was the first athlete to win an Olympic medal after undergoing a major organ transplant. He received a new liver less than two years before winning a snowboarding bronze medal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

In the early 1990s, Klug had been diagnosed with a rare disease known as Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC), a rare degenerative liver condition that requires a transplant.

It is the same disease that caused the death a decade ago of former star National Football League running back Walter Payton.

Klug was on the transplant waiting list for six years, and during that time he was out care-free, riding his snowboard, playing and training hard. But his health took a turn for the worse in early 2000 and he needed to get serious about being upgraded on the list. He told VOA it was a scary time in his life.

"You know you're hoping and praying for a second chance and not really knowing what your future holds. It's not like all the orthopedic injuries I've had where you go get an MRI or an X-ray and you get it fixed. You've got to hope and hang out and pray for a second chance," the snowboarder said.

Klug got that second chance and remembers it well. It came July 28 in 2000, when a young boy died in a gunshot accident and his parents decided to donate his organs. Klug was the recipient of the boy's liver, and three others also received his organs.

It was during that critical waiting period 10 years ago that Klug decided if he pulled through, he would do everything in his power to help others going through the same thing.

"When I was on the waiting list in 2000, there were 84,000 people in the U.S. waiting for solid organ transplants, and about 15 died each day waiting. You know, at one point I thought I was going to be one of those 15," said Klug.

So in 2004, he started the Chris Klug Foundation with the goal of promoting life-saving donations and helping improve the quality of life for donors, recipients and transplant candidates.

"In 2009 we hosted 75 events around the country – [called] Donor Dudes events – which is a program that we started on high school and college campuses, really to promote donation and encourage young people to share their decision and make sure they know the facts about donation," he added.

Klug held another Donor Dudes event at the recent Winter X Games which were held this year in his hometown of Aspen, Colorado.

Chris Klug has had other challenges in his career. He believes he was wrongly denied a place on the 2006 U.S. Olympic team for the Turin Winter Games. And even though he won at the national championships last year, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association decided not to fund him anymore. So he formed his own team with three others and solicited his own sponsors. And he successfully made it through qualifying this season to make it on the U.S. Team for Vancouver.  

On Saturday, Klug will compete in the men's parallel giant slalom snowboard event. He is fairly certain this is his final Olympics, so he has been relishing the experience. "That's been my mantra all season, just enjoy the ride. Mainly partly because of knowing this is probably my last competitive season, and then maybe for missing out in 2006, you know I really wanted to savor every moment in this," said Klug.

Chris Klug, who takes anti-rejection drugs, says he is stronger than he was before his liver transplant. He is currently 15th in the World Cup standings and the veteran snowboarder said he feels confident he can be in the running for an Olympic medal.

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