Olympics series: Vail native Chris Klug helped pioneer snowboarding in Olympics
Editor’s note: During this Winter Olympic year and leading up to the 2015 FIS Alpine World Championship season, this weekly series will tell Colorado’s rich ski racing history and heritage through stories about its ski heroes and legends.
Aspen’s Chris Klug was born in Vail, learned to ski at age 2 in Lionshead, first started snowboarding after moving to Oregon at age 7, and realized his lifelong dream of winning an Olympic medal as a 29-year-old at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002.
Klug was the first American man named to the first ever U.S. Olympic snowboarding team for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, the first (and only) organ transplant recipient to win an Olympic medal — winter or summer — and the first snowboarder elected to the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum Hall of Fame.
At those first Olympic Games to include snowboarding in 1998, there were only four total events: Men’s and women’s halfpipe and men’s and women’s giant slalom. Klug had a silver after the first run of the GS and was gunning for gold when a major mistake near the bottom of his second run knocked him back to sixth.
“As disappointed as I was with missing a medal in ’98 I decided I wanted to come back and get the job done four years later, and little did I know that interesting road I would travel those four years to get there,” said Klug, who’s now 41, married and a father of two in Aspen.
“Being on a (liver transplant) waiting list for six years, having my life-saving liver transplant in 2000 and bouncing back to win a medal just a year and half later made it just all that much more special.”
The single-racer GS format was scrapped for the 2002 Olympics, and Klug won the bronze medal in the newly added parallel giant slalom at the Salt Lake City Games.
“I recognized in 2002 that I had a huge platform to trumpet (the transplant) cause and help other people, and so that was really the origin of the Chris Klug Foundation that’s now celebrating 10 years and has raised about a million dollars for organ donation,” Klug said.
How Far Snowboarding Has Come
He’s also blown away by how far his sport has come since those early days in the 1980s when many resorts and skiers fought to keep snowboarders off the slopes. At this past month’s Sochi Winter Olympics there were a total of 10 men’s and women’s events: Halfpipe, snowboard cross, PGS and the newly added disciplines of slopestyle and parallel slalom.
“For me, it was extra special because I got involved with the sport really early on, and I was part of the early pioneering spirit of snowboarding just as the sport was going to explode,” Klug said. “I got started back in the days of moonboots and lots of duct tape and a glorified shaped piece of plywood. I started on a Burton Backhill at the local sledding hill.”
Klug also started competing at a time when freestylers in the pipe often crossed over into alpine riding and vice versa. But at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds Klug knew he was better suited to going downhill fast than doing tricks in the halfpipe, and he had to specialize at the Olympics.
“You wouldn’t see Bode Miller or Lindsey Vonn competing in the aerials or the moguls; it’s unheard of,” he said. “A tech skier might cross over and do the speed events, like a (Ted) Ligety, but you wouldn’t see him drop into the moguls, and that’s kind of what we were doing in the early days.”
On The Fringe
Alpine snowboard racing has always been a bit fringe in the United States, with the glamour disciplines of halfpipe and slopestyle dominating attention at events like the X Games and U.S. Open. With slopestyle added for Sochi, the United States Ski and Snowboard Association decided to stock up there and only sent one alpine rider, Steamboat’s Justin Reiter.
Reiter was mostly on his own, sleeping in his truck while training in Park City and watching as his teammate Vic Wild married a Russian woman and decided to compete for his adopted nation.
Fully funded, Wild won double gold medals in PGS and parallel slalom at Sochi while Reiter missed the podium in PGS and was disqualified in his best event, slalom. But Reiter didn’t slam the USSA for focusing on slopestyle and forcing him to take a hard road to Russia.
“Had I had two good results right now, I’d be singing a different tune, like ‘Yeah, it worked,’ Reiter said this past month. “Well, it didn’t work. It got me to the Olympics. I’m an Olympian … but I wasn’t able to execute on the day, on two days.”
Luke Bodensteiner, USSA’s executive vice president of athletics, defended the team’s de-emphasizing of alpine snowboarding in favor of “new school” events like slopestyle.
All About Having Fun
“Our organization continues to provide support to elite athletes across all sports and is proud that 17 different American skiers and snowboarders medaled (in Sochi),” Bodensteiner said in a release. “Our strategic focus on new events like halfpipe and slopestyle had clear athletic success for us in Sochi and are very relevant to what kids are doing at resorts around the world today.”
For Klug, all forms of riding have value.
“I still get in the pipe today and still enjoy it,” Klug said. “At 41 years old, I don’t like the impact as much, so I just do backcountry and freeride and a few celebrity races, but I really did enjoy the freestyle events as well. I’m pretty old-school, but nevertheless it was fun.”
David O. Williams wrote this story for the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum. The museum is located on the third level of the Vail Village parking structure, adjacent to Vail Village Covered Bridge. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call 970-476-1876 or go to http://www.skimuseum.net.