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Olympian, transplant survivor says: 'Enjoy the ride'

Olympian, transplant survivor says: 'Enjoy the ride'
CNN
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Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 4:19pm

On July 28, 2000, I had a liver transplant at the University Hospital in Denver. I was diagnosed nine years earlier with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare degenerative bile duct condition that required a transplant.

I'm lucky to be alive today. It was truly an amazing experience for me and for my family. To receive the gift of life is a humbling experience. I will forever be grateful for my second chance. Every day I thank God and I thank the individual's family for the decision to donate.

The hardest part of the transplant was the waiting game leading up to it. It's not like an orthopedic injury. You can't just get the MRI or X-ray, find out what's up and get it fixed. Your life is put on hold; you hope and pray daily for a second chance.

I wore a pager every minute of the day and carried a cell phone as a backup in anticipation of receiving a call from the University Hospital transplant team informing me that a liver was available that matched my blood type, age and size.

Three months after being upgraded on the list to a more critical stage, I was attempting to work out when my phone rang. When I finally got the call, I was relieved that the wait was finally over but scared to death of the prospect of possibly not surviving the surgery.

I was extremely fortunate. I received a perfect match and had the best team of doctors around performing the operation. I was pretty fit going into the surgery, which helped me bounce back quickly.

I was out of the hospital in record time, four days, and back in the gym lightly riding a stationary bike and lifting my arms within a week. I really had to listen to my body and to my doctors and go easy for the first month. The risk of an incisional hernia was high, so I took it easy.

The doctors told us the best thing I could do was walk, so I that's what we did. We walked to Broncos games, Rockies games, the new aquarium and shops all over Denver.

I even walked a round of golf, following Greg Norman, Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson at the International at Castle Rock. Man, was I spent after that. I remember sitting on the 18th green in the shade after the event for about a half hour catching my breath and trying to muster the energy to make it back to the car.

I returned to Aspen a month after my transplant to begin my rehab with my trainer Bill Fabrocini at the Aspen Club Sports Performance Center. My abs had been sliced through, so it took quite a while for them to come back, and it left a "bad" new tattoo. I still get curious looks at the pool or lake when I lose my shirt for a dip. I've come up with some pretty good stories explaining my scar. The shark attack tale actually works!

Seven weeks after my surgery, I began light abdominal strengthening. A week later, I headed to Mt. Hood, Oregon, for my first runs back on my snowboard. It was pretty special. I remember being so excited to be back on snow and with my friends. I never take a day of riding with my buddies or a single turn for granted any longer.

I was back on the World Cup Circuit four months after my surgery. Six months later, I stood atop the podium in Olang, Italy, for the first time. That winter was one of my best seasons ever. I attribute that to a new perspective on life and feeling lucky to be doing what I love again after running the "race for my life."

A year and a half later, in 2002, I had the opportunity to represent our country in my second Olympic Games, where I won a bronze medal and fulfilled a lifelong dream.

I am committed through the Chris Klug Foundation to promoting life-saving organ and tissue donation in all that I do, to help the more than 120,000 people waiting today for a second chance at life across our country.

These days, after 20-plus years of living out of a suitcase pursuing my Olympic dreams, I'm loving being home in Aspen, working on my real estate business, being a dad and volunteering for the Chris Klug Foundation.

Last year, we celebrated 10 years of organ donation awareness outreach through the foundation; during that time, we've raised more than $1.5 million for organ donation awareness activities nationwide.

I continue to challenge myself athletically. I am passionate about demonstrating what is possible after a transplant. One of my goals is to become the first transplant recipient to climb the Seven Summits.

I've had an amazing ride. I enjoy sharing my story and experiences as a professional motivational and corporate speaker. My favorite thing is to talk with those going through the same thing I did 13 years ago and let them know that I'm healthier and stronger than ever, and there's nothing I can't do.

My motto is "Don't take a turn for granted, and enjoy the ride!"

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