It was only a green run, but Kevin Pearce ripped it.
Two years ago, the then 22-year-old Pearce was six weeks away from the Vancouver Olympics, where the young American was to vie with Shaun White for snowboarding halfpipe gold. But in a training run on Dec. 31, 2009, practising a spinning, twisting trick that only the likes of Pearce and White could pull off, Pearce misjudged the landing and cracked his face on the icy lip of the halfpipe wall.
His buddies thought he was dead. Pearce was rushed to hospital in a coma, with a traumatic brain injury. Doctors didn’t know if he would talk or walk again.
On Tuesday, Pearce rode a snowboard for the first time since that New Year’s Eve, first taking a few low-key runs with his closest friends at Vail Mountain in the morning. In the afternoon he carved fast turns at nearby Breckenridge, joined by dozens of fans, trailed by television cameras.
“That was a good one,” Pearce said with a huge smile as he skidded to a stop after ripping the green Springmeier run, riding fast, outpacing most others. He was promptly embraced by his mother in a big hug.
Two years of rehabilitation was, Pearce said, “the craziest process you could ever imagine. To be here in this shape, with all my best friends, and able to ride, is just beyond anything I could ever explain. I’m lucky, and I’m happy.”
As snowboarding grows as a sport, injuries pile up. Pearce’s crash was a harsh clarion call for riders – mostly young men – who rarely consider the potential consequences of a dangerous endeavour, especially when Pearce and others hurtle five metres in the air above seven-metre-tall icy halfpipe walls.
Pearce had concussed himself just weeks before he nearly killed himself. White – who won his second gold in Vancouver – was nearly felled less than a month before the Games by the same type of crash that waylaid Pearce, but escaped with only a big red bruise on his left cheek. Yet snowboarders keep pushing limits.
“People get hurt all the time,” said Mark McMorris, an 18-year-old from Regina who has become a snowboard star and competes at Breckenridge this weekend in the Dew Tour (and whose father is Don McMorris, health minister in Saskatchewan).
“Kevin got very unlucky,” McMorris added. “I guess it’s one of those things you can’t explain. You just have to keep snowboarding. But he opened people’s eyes. It can happen.”
Helmet use has shot higher since Pearce’s crash, likely buoyed by the publicity around his recovery. Pearce has promoted the use of helmets in the sport, and says if he hadn’t had one when he crashed, he was “guaranteed dead.”
About three out of five skiers and snowboarders wear a helmet, according to research by the National Ski Areas Association, up from less than half in 2008-09 and more than double the one out of four helmeted skiers/riders in 2002-03.
For those 17 and younger, helmets are worn by four out of five. Even among traditionally reckless 18-to-24-year-olds, half now wear helmets.
Pearce’s mother, Pia, was by her son’s side through his recovery. She had some anxiety about his return to snow, but always had some anxiety when he was at the top of his game.
“There was a part of me that had a lot of anxiety coming into this,” Pia said after Kevin’s first Breckenridge run. “Now that it’s all in motion, I’m really, really happy for him. I feel like part of my job in this process is to help get him to a place where he has enough awareness of his vulnerabilities and his limitations, and what the risks are. And that helps me, when I had to do what any mother of a 24-year-old has to do, which is let go.”
It was a sunny afternoon at Breckenridge, about 0 C. The lack of early-season snow wasn’t the bummer it would normally be. Pearce remembered watching White win the gold he himself could have claimed, watching “half-dead” from bed at Craig Hospital south of Denver, a specialty brain trauma rehab centre, where he moved after coming out of critical condition at a hospital in Utah.
“I feel like I remember being in my hospital bed and being like, ‘Oh, I’ll be able to go out and ride in a couple weeks.’ I had no idea what I was in for.”
He’s dreamt snowboarding in the weeks before Tuesday.
“I wake up from dreams and I’m like, ‘Holy cow.’ It couldn’t get any better.”
Through the ordeal, he had two surgeries. The first was while he was in Utah, to repair an orbital fracture, the bone below his left eye. The second was Nov. 1, this year, his 24th birthday, to improve his vision and balance, eye-muscle surgery.
There was no talk on Tuesday about joining his comrades in the pipe any time soon. Pearce remains focused on the present and announced no grand plans.
All his friends want to ride with him. White, eschewing baggy snowboard fashion for black tight pants and a black leather jacket, posed for some photos with fans before dashing off to a lift: “I’m going to catch him right now.”