ASPEN, Colo. -- Chris Klug accomplished a lot in his 25-year career as a snowboard racer. He won multiple World Cup races and competed in three Olympic Winter Games, earning a bronze medal in Salt Lake City in 2002 -- a year and a half after he received a life-saving liver transplant.
But until Thursday afternoon, Klug had never won a medal at the X Games, which take place less than a mile from his home. He changed that when he teamed with Special Olympics athlete Henry Meece to win the first-ever Unified Snowboarding dual slalom race at X Games Aspen.
Standing at the base of Buttermilk Mountain, waiting to receive the gold medal, Klug was asked how he did it. He turned to Meece. "My friend Henry carried me," Klug said.
Klug and Meece, a 25-year-old from Portland, Oregon, who works three jobs as a janitor, narrowly beat 2006 Olympic halfpipe gold medalist Hannah Teter and teammate Daina Shilts. Teter also serves as a Special Olympics global ambassador. X Games halfpipe competitor Scotty James and Special Olympics athlete Zachary Elder claimed bronze.
The event marked the first time Special Olympics athletes were awarded the same medals given to other X Games athletes. But it wasn't about medals as much as a kindred spirit among competitors.
"I've been snowboarding for 30-plus years now," Klug said at the top of the course, "and this is what it's all about. Having fun on the mountain, standing sideways and sliding downhill in the sunshine. Snowboarding's the common denominator. It brings us all together here."
"Special Olympics is changing lives," said Teter, who campaigned to get the Unified Snowboarding event added to the X Games docket. "I grew up with a special-needs brother, and the separation from other kids is so extreme. We've got to break down those barriers. I'm just happy to be part of a mission."
The scene at the top of the course Thursday epitomized that mission. Faces lit up like the sun overhead. Pros signed their teammates' jackets. Coaches stood back and watched as their pupils mingled with their heroes. "It's very significant that the X Games welcomed them as credentialed athletes so they can sit in the athlete lounge and feel like they're the same as everyone else," said Bob Whitehead, a Special Olympics technical delegate and event organizer.
There was Beau Karlen, who has Down syndrome and trains with the St. Croix Lumberjacks in his home state of Minnesota, preparing for his first of two runs. "This has been a dream of Beau's all his life, since he was 5 years old and started watching the X Games on TV," said Beau's father and coach, Ralph Karlen. "He never thought he'd be here."
As Beau slid into the starting gate, Ralph reassured his son: "Hey, don't worry about anything. Just do what you do, buddy."
Then Beau took off down the course, arcing around the same gates as the Olympic medalists, schussing through the finish to rousing cheers.
Soon after, Elder, 19, took his turn on course. He started snowboarding at age 10 because he wanted to be like Shaun White, he said. It took him two years to learn how to turn. "At the time," said his coach, Meghan Hughes, "he really didn't talk much at all. He would talk to you about roller coasters and the Olympics, that was it. Then he learned to snowboard, and a year or two after that, he joined the Adaptive Sports Foundation race team [in New York]. It changed his life. His snowboarding ability increased dramatically. He was talking all the time. He was so excited to be around his teammates and his coaches."
Now, Elder is two tests shy of graduating from high school. "His parents did not know that was even a possibility five years ago -- that he could graduate high school," Hughes said. "Snowboarding has completely transformed who he is."
"Being here," Elder said, "feels like winning a million bucks."
Shilts, 23, can relate. A Special Olympics veteran of 17 years, she knows firsthand how sports can change an intellectually disabled person's life. She works with autistic children at home in Neillsville, Wisconsin, to give them the same feeling and sense of inclusion. "Special Olympics has showed me how big you can make someone smile," Shilts said. "It's just an amazing feeling working for someone who needs you. You get that warm feeling when they're smiling and laughing, and I love it."
Shilts has been an X Games fan for most of her life, so much so that she takes time off from work to watch the competitions on television.
"I took off work again this year," Shilts said, "but instead of watching, I'm at it, competing in the X Games."