Nothing surprises Klug's family and friends

PARK CITY, Utah -- The sun hid behind the huge gray smears of clouds, but Chris Klug's crew of 75 friends and relatives were out in raucous full force.

As the Olympic theme music trilled noisily over the speakers, the Klug klan hugged each other and clanked cowbells. Mom Kathy bounced up and down, the twin spring-mounted sparkly red hearts on her head boinging in a show of exuberant maternal support. Even Swiss snowboarder Gilles Jaquet's family shook their gigantic blue index fingers that read, "Team USA -- Go Chris Klug," while waving their country's flag.

Amidst this sea of red and blue love, Jim Klug, was giddy with anxiety. His little bro was racing first. "Chris looks great," said Jim. "He's been training on this course a lot. But we're all a little nervous here."

Understandably. Less than two years ago, Klug's 6-foot-3, 215-pound body was ravaged by a rare liver disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC). His bile ducts had almost completely shut down, his eyes were jaundiced, his body withered, and his heart heavy with fear.

He still trained, hoping against hope that he'd somehow return to the Olympics -- he finished sixth in Nagano in giant slalom -- but Klug now struggled with weights he once lifted easily.

Klug used to think he was indestructible. But Klug felt nothing like the U.S. snowboard racing champ that he was. And without a new liver, he would have died.

Then, a miracle: On July 28, 2000, Chris underwent a liver transplant at University of Denver Hospital. Incredibly, he felt little post-operative pain, and was discharged after a mere four days. Seven weeks later, Klug was riding again. His doctors were amazed by his progress.

"It's a surprise to anyone who doesn't know Chris," said Jim. "But it was always easy for his family to believe that he'd make it."

"He's the strongest person I know," agreed Missy April, Chris' girlfriend of eight years.

Now, Klug was racing first in his second Olympics, with a shot to improve upon his sixth-place finish in Nagano. "Ohhhh," Missy groaned above the din. "Can't we just go already?"

Then Chris dropped in, and his family immediately knew from his line on the top pitch that he was tearing up the newfallen snow.

"C'mon, Chrisser!" yelled Jim. "Yes! He's nailing it! He's looking awesome!"

Jim stood behind Missy, clutching her shoulders tightly and shaking her excitedly as Chrisser smoothly navigated the curves at the bottom, zipping past the finish line. Chris slid to a stop, falling on his back and nearly knocking over a cameraman.

"Look at that," said Jim, barely audible over the collective shrieking of the 70-odd people surrounding him. "I'm so glad he went first, because I don't think I could've stood waiting."

Jim wasn't going to get off that easily. With 31 racers left, he watched as they ripped down the perfectly buffed course, praying that his brother would be left standing at the end. "As long as he's in the top 16, that's all that matters," Jim said.

Then Chris squeezed past a security fence to get to his family for hugs and Hershey's red-foil-wrapped Kisses. As Jim poked him in the chest with one of those spongy blue index finger, Chris laughed. "Those fingers are terrible," he said, grinning.

But the day certainly wasn't. Chris would fall no further than 11th. "I was having a heart attack at the bottom of the hill," Klug admitted later.

Meanwhile, Alexander Maier -- yet another pal of Klug's -- finished second, poised to take on the Maier family mantle so brilliantly carried by his older brother, Hermann. While Alex faced the media types in the news conference room, the Herminator was back home in Austria rehabbing his leg (he broke it in a serious motorcycle accident last fall). But Alex wasn't alone.

"I was eating yesterday, and the handy (Austrian slang for a cell phone) was ringing," Alex said. "It was Hermann, with tips for today and tomorrow."

When pressed for details, Maier grinned. "I'll tell you after the race tomorrow. These guys are too strong."

"Aww, c'mon Alex," Klug piped in with a laugh. "Tell us your secrets."

Alex only smirked and shook his head.

Afterward, the conference was over and the press swallowed up Chris.
Alex explained that his brother was here in spirit. "It's OK that he's not here," said Maier, who was once just an Olympic spectator, as a charter member of his brother's sizeable fan club. "I think it's better for him to be on holiday. It's really hard for him not to be here at these Olympics. But maybe in 2006, we'll both be in Italy."

Poking each other with a couple blue foam fingers, no doubt.

Anne Marie Cruz writes for ESPN The Magazine.