Klug eyes medals, awareness

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Valentine's Day, which celebrates the figurative affairs of the heart, is also National Organ Donor Day. If anyone needs a reminder of how the generosity of organ donors and their families saves and transforms lives, look no further than the U.S. snowboard team.

Chris Klug is back for his third Olympics at age 37, eight years after he won a bronze medal in Salt Lake City in parallel giant slalom with duct tape holding one of his boots together. The greater significance of the story was the more intricate internal repair job that enabled him to get there.

Klug, the amiable son of an Aspen, Colo., hotel owner, was diagnosed in his early 20s with the same liver disease (primary sclerosing cholangitis) that killed Chicago Bears great Walter Payton. As Klug's health slowly deteriorated, he spent three years on a transplant list before receiving the liver of a 13-year-old boy killed in an accidental shooting in the summer of 2000.

The 2002 medal gave Klug a bigger platform to promote his cause, and he has taken full advantage of it. His eponymous nonprofit organization, Chris Klug Foundation, wears its mission on its home page (www.chrisklugfoundation.org): "Promoting organ and tissue donation through action sports." The decision to become an organ donor can be made starting at age 18. Klug's group aims to reach high school kids through the "Donor Dudes" program, educating them about the issue to encourage them to be donors when they are of age or to talk to their parents about their wishes. The foundation held 75 events around the country last year.

Even as Klug's charitable venture grew and prospered, he fell short of qualifying for the 2006 Olympic team. Last year, things took an even more unexpected turn in his 'boarding life. Last spring, U.S. snowboarding officials facing budget cuts decided that PGS didn't hold enough medal potential in Vancouver and ended coaching support and other funding to Klug, among other athletes.

Klug, who had just won the national championship, was stunned at first.

"I thought they were calling me to congratulate me," he said. "But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I said, 'I'm going to do this right and put together my own team and the best training environment I can.'"

Klug recruited three other 'boarders, Zac Kay, Josh White and Erica Mueller, and persuaded his former coach Rob Roy to guide them. The team secured $100,000 in corporate sponsorship, primarily from Hooters and BCF, a Virginia-based ad agency. They decided to call the outfit America's Snowboarding Team, but Klug cautioned that it should not be confused with alpine skier Bode Miller's secession from the U.S. Ski Team during the previous Olympic cycle.

"We weren't trying to break off and do our own thing," Klug said. "This was out of necessity.

"We were tight-knit, super-flexible and versatile, which is harder to do with a bigger team. It was really getting back to my roots. This is how alpine snowboarding started, with independent professional teams. This is perhaps my final competitive season, and I wanted to leave a legacy and show that perhaps there's another path to the Olympics."

Roy, who helped Klug develop from a green athlete in 1989-90 to an Olympian in 1998, said Klug was a dedicated professional even at age 17. "Like anyone, he's matured," said Roy, who is serving as an assistant coach to the U.S. team here. "There aren't many questions left. He knows who he is, what he stands for and what his career means to him."

But Roy added that the key to Klug's longevity is his willingness to evolve and experiment with equipment and technique in a sport that is still constantly shape-changing. PGS began as a beat-the-clock event; now racers compete side by side in elimination runs, and it will take 10 successful ones to win the gold. Board and boot designs nowadays produce higher speeds and require more aggressiveness from the athletes.

In other words, staying competitive in PGS means being a fast adopter and Klug has always been that way, Roy said. "I give him full marks for what he did this year," the coach said.

The team trained in Oregon and Colorado last fall before embarking on the World Cup circuit. Klug was the only one of the quartet who eventually earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team after notching two top-10 World Cup finishes. He admits he was a little nervous that politics might intervene in the selection process for the U.S. Olympic team, "but I had a pretty compelling argument," he said. "I wanted to make as clear a statement as I could."

Klug achieved his goal despite wearing a cast on his right hand and wrist, broken in training late last year, in all five Olympic qualifying events. He said his bigger-picture health is great. Klug remains on the immuno-suppressive medication he must take for the rest of his life to avoid the chance his body will reject the transplanted liver.

In his 20th year in the sport, Klug, now married to his longtime girlfriend Missy April, said snowboarding continues to be both an athletic passion and a means to a more meaningful end. "One of the reasons I'm really glad to be back at the Olympics, aside from my selfish competitive reasons, is that when I had my transplant, there were 85,000 people waiting on the national list," he said. "Now there are 100,000. There is a cure out there, and the cure is more people signing up to be organ donors."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.