After a serious brain injury, he's now taking the next step.
It’s been two years since Kevin Pearce suffered a serious brain injury while training for the Olympic half pipe. He’s undergone most types of therapy and all manner of surgeries, but it’s the support of complete strangers that carries the most weight. Now, with a balanced outlook on life, he’s ready to think about the next step.
As I park my car outside Kevin Pearce‘s house in Carlsbad, California, I see a work in progress. The entire house and surrounding landscape is under construction, but you can see that it’s slowly coming together and that the completed project will be impressive yet humble – open and homely. The same could be said for Kevin himself. Having suffered a much-publicised traumatic brain injury just before the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Kevin Pearce is still very much a work in progress.
Two years ago, Kevin was the only snowboarder touted to stand a real chance of taking the crown from Shaun White in the Olympic halfpipe. But on New Year’s Eve 2009, his incredible career hit a dramatic bump when he slammed the right side of his head into the icy lip of a halfpipe while practising a double cork, a trick he knew he needed to nail in order to shoot for gold at the upcoming Games. The ensuing drama involved Kevin being airlifted to the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City where he spent several days in a medically induced coma. It took a full month before he was stable enough to be transferred to Denver’s Craig Hospital for a further three months of intense rehabilitation, up to eight hours a day. It wasn’t known at first whether Kevin would survive, or what condition he would be in if he did, but like a true champion, he smashed the odds and made a remarkable recovery.
To see Kevin today, you would be forgiven for thinking that he is 100 per cent back to normal. At twenty-four, he’s fit and strong, talks freely and looks totally like the old Kevin – especially without the addition of the thick-lensed prescription glasses he’s had to wear since the accident (just last week, Kevin underwent surgery to repair the vertical and horizontal misalignment of his eye, meaning the specs are no longer a fixed appendage). But serious brain injuries are far more complex than they first appear.
“I think it’s cool how everyone talks about how well I’m doing, but no one ever talks about how badly I’m doing,” explains Kevin, looking perfectly at ease out on his new deck. “It’s good to be able to talk about that; there are still so many things that I’m doing badly at, but what I’ve learned is that those things are so invisible. Whether it’s my memory or my balance, they’re so small and so hard to see, but for me they’re so big and so hard – so hard because of how they’ve taken such a toll on me. I have been doing this for two years, and it’s like this brain injury never ends. It’s never going to go away; I’m always going to be brain injured. I’ve come to accept that, but it’s hard to know I will always be healing for the rest of my life, and a weird thought that things will always be different now.”
If it sounds like Kevin is complaining, it couldn’t be further from the truth. In person, he oozes positivity. And while anyone dealt the same card would be forgiven for feeling angry, Kevin doesn’t seem to have a bitter bone in his body. If anything he seems consumed by gratitude, for the life he led both before and after that fateful day. “I know that I’m doing well and that I’m very lucky,” says Kevin. “I’ve been able to take all the positives and not look at the negatives. And I think that’s a huge part of why I’ve got so far, because when I go to rehab I don’t sit there with the attitude of, ‘Oh, this sucks. I don’t want to do this therapy.’ I think a lot of kids feel very sorry for themselves, and I took the other angle… I think it says a lot about how I was raised and how my parents brought me up that I look at it like this.”
Growing up in Vermont as one of four brothers, Kevin and his family are a tight-knit crew. His older brother David has Down syndrome, but in what appears to be a Pearce family trait, he refuses to let that fact define his life and has instead risen to become a Special Olympics ski champ. That determination was evident in the way the Pearce family helped Kevin on his road to recovery. Kevin becomes emotional when he talks about how older brother Adam stayed by his side almost round the clock for the first three months. With Adam as his physical therapy buddy, Kevin rose to the familiar old challenge of competing against his brother, pushing himself harder than he would have done alone.
Alongside family, a global network of people – from sponsors and close friends to complete strangers – colluded to help him on his path to recovery. The Facebook page run by Adam in the aftermath of the accident – called ‘Well Wishes to our Friend Kevin Pearce’ – boasts 52,000 members to date. “The support I got is hard to explain,” he says. “I didn’t realise that many people would be there. It was pretty special. The support is what has touched me and helped me the most.”
Kevin walks into the kitchen to pick up a card he received last week on his birthday. It’s from a fan who talks about what an inspiration Kevin has been to him. “To be getting that from somebody is so touching,” says Kevin, seemingly overwhelmed. “These cards came every single day in that hospital. What it has done for me is amazing – there’s so much love.”
And that love has been unwavering. In an industry that isn’t afraid to replace underperformers with ‘the next big thing’, nearly all of Kevin’s sponsors have continued to support him. It says a lot for the athlete he was, and the person he still is – or, as Kevin puts it, “It says a lot about these companies that they stood by me with no idea of what was coming next!” AMP just renewed his contract for three years, and last year Burton re-signed him for a further two. But it’s clear that at some point Kevin is going to have some difficult questions to answer about his future.
Another head injury is out of the question. “If I hit my head again, it’s game over,” explains Kevin, adding that leaving the snowboard world entirely is not really an option either. “I never thought I would have to think about this at this age, I thought I would be snowboarding until I was in my thirties… Now, pretty much what it comes down to is that I have to figure out a new life… I have no idea what to do. It’s so hard because all I know is snowboarding, and I know it so well.”
Not one to sit and mope, Kevin has been out on the slopes emceeing for contests and maintaining a presence within the world of professional snowboarding. “It’s not my favourite thing,” he admits, “but it helps me stay involved and gives me a reason to go to the contests.” Just yesterday, Kevin had to watch as his best friends, including roommate Jack Mitrani, packed up their snowboard bags to head over to Mammoth Mountain for opening day while he stayed home. Although doctors have said he can get back on a board for mellow powder riding at some point this winter, he isn’t quite there yet. And he’s okay with that – for now.
“It’s not going to help me in any way to be sad and depressed,” he explains. “I’ve totally come round to the fact that it is what it is, and what has happened, happened,” he says. “I’m lucky that I have been able to stay positive. I have been able to take all the good things that I have been so lucky to have, whether it’s being able to see right now, or being able to walk or talk. It could be so much worse.”
When Kevin’s injury hit headlines, the mainstream media sprung into action with stories that claimed snowboarding had gone one step too far – that the professional circuit had entered a place of no return, where riding with style and grace was being supplanted by the need to spin and huck your ass off. For months, Kevin was silently at the centre of the storm, but now he feels he can have his say. “I feel like half-pipe riding is getting close to the limit,” he explains, “but I would never begin to say that the direction it’s going is not good, just because of how excited I am about all these new tricks. I feel like everyone understands that getting injured like I did is a possibility and it could be way worse – and if they don’t, they are crazy.
“It’s so hard for me to imagine us getting past where we are at now, but it’s impossible to know,” he continues. “Are kids going to start doing triple corks in the half pipe? It’s such a hard question because I kind of do think it might happen. If it does, it means the risk level will just be so high and it will be like what happened to me… That is not what I want to see. The style and essence of snowboarding is still there in the half pipe, but if we go much further, I do think we will start to lose it.”
Fortunately for Kevin, his love for snowboarding is deeply entrenched in the mountains – a place doctors say he can return to soon. “I get most stoked on powder,” he says. “The [Absinthe] movie Twel2ve stokes me out as every shot is in so much snow. That’s what makes me the most excited about getting back into snowboarding.”
When we talk about his long-term memory loss, Kevin’s explanation is characteristically balanced. “The important stuff I remember without a problem,” he says. “The other stuff is gone.” It seems symbolic of his general outlook on life; he focuses on the things that matter, and refuses to waste his time on those that don’t. But he’s not underplaying how much his life has changed.
“My life is 360 degrees different, it is the exact opposite of what it was,” he notes. He has a friend, Haylee, who lives with him full-time and helps out with anything he needs so as to reduce any stress that could lead to seizures in his shoulder, his body’s way of telling him that he’s doing too much. When I arrive, I sense that she is discreetly checking that Kevin will be okay while she nips out to the store. Between physical therapy, cognitive therapy, speech therapy (which he has now finished), eye therapy and an important medication schedule, Kevin doesn’t have time to slack off. “You’ve really got to take yourself seriously, because it’s such a serious thing,” he explains. “I don’t screw with it. I’ve chosen to do things the right way.”
Doing things the right way means altering the usual social patterns a typical guy in his mid-twenties may enjoy. Kevin has had no more than two sips of alcohol since his injury, a fact that doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. But that’s not to say his life is frustration free. “Your brain doesn’t tell you that it’s injured,” explains Kevin. “Physically, my balance is my biggest issue. It’s so hard because, say with surfing, I used to be able to rip down the line, and now I go out there and feel so fine, like I should just be able to do it without any issue. Then I go out and can barely catch a wave because of my balance and vision. All the things it takes to surf are all gone for me now.”
And frustration stems from other sources, too. “When I tell some people that my memory is pretty bad, they’re like, ‘Yeah, I have such a bad memory too!’” laughs Kevin, clearly too laid-back to let such things rile him. “People always come up to me and think they know, but no one will ever really understand.”
When Kevin got injured, he was at the pinnacle of his career. He had beaten Shaun White at the 2008 Burton European Open half pipe contest, was the first athlete to compete in three events in one day at the Winter X Games and had recently been crowned TTR World Champion. He was well known and had good exposure. Then came the accident and soon Kevin Pearce became a name uttered by primetime news channels, talk shows and mainstream magazines. In short, he became more famous after his accident than he was before. When I ask him whether this bugs him – the fact that he may possibly become better known for his injury than for his achievements in snowboarding – he looks at me bemused; it’s clear he doesn’t allow space in his healing brain for such banal thoughts. After some thoughtful consideration, he replies: “No, I don’t think I have ever thought about it like that. Being a professional snowboarder doesn’t help anybody but yourself. I feel like making a change in the world is something I can do now, with all the people who have been affected and know about me because of this.”
And that ball is already rolling. Kevin is in the early stages of working on a documentary about his life with the producer of Oscar-nominated movie Wasteland. His hope is that the film will carry with it a purpose, something that will help people in some way. “Lots of people tell me that this must have happened for a reason, that I have a purpose in life now,” he says. “I’m trying to work out what my purpose is.”
Even if Kevin hasn’t worked that bit out quite yet, he’s definitely received recognition for what he has achieved so far. This December, he is heading to Washington DC to receive the National Rehabilitation Hospital’s Victory Award, an honour bestowed on those who show exceptional courage in the face of physical adversity. “Tomorrow, Billy Anderson [from Volcom] is taking me up to LA to get fitted for a Gucci tux for this award,” he tells me, laughing. “I don’t even know what a Gucci tuxedo is – it’s going to be awesome!”
At this point his phone beeps a reminder alarm. It’s time for his eye drops, an important measure to prevent any post-surgery infection. As I help him pop them in, he points out that if it weren’t for his phone, he would never remember to take his medication, another invisible indicator of just how much work he still needs to put in.
When we are nearing the end of our interview, Kevin starts to yawn a lot. He explains that it’s a side effect of his medication, a sign of his “brain needing more oxygen”. The yawn turns into a small sigh when I ask him what’s next; where does he see himself in the near future? It seems the toughest question of them all, and the only one that really stops him in his tracks. “I’ve got to find out what is next. Really, what is next…?”
On that note, Kevin wanders off to talk with the contractor working on his house (a property, incidentally, he bought just before his injury and had no recollection of after the accident). I am left with little doubt that Kevin Pearce – world-class snowboarder, indomitable fighter – will have no trouble working out what comes next.
A few days later, Kevin sends me a photo of himself trying on his Gucci suit, signature grin spread across his face. It makes me chuckle; there’s something contagious about that smile.