Freestyle skier Sarah Burke died after a fall in the same Utah superpipe – with its seven-metre walls – that felled American snowboarder Kevin Pearce on New Year’s Eve in 2009.
Pearce was training for the Vancouver Olympics, where he was expected to rival Shaun White, who won the halfpipe gold medal. Pearce suffered a traumatic brain injury in a far more severe fall than Burke’s. Pearce survived and watched the Olympics from a hospital bed. He had to relearn how to walk, how to swallow. One surgery repaired a fracture below his left eye. A second, after nearly two years of rehabilitation, fixed his vision and balance, on his 24th birthday on Nov. 1.
On Dec. 13, Pearce rode a snowboard for the first time since the crash. At Breckenridge in Colorado, on a green run, Pearce ripped it. He carved fast, wide turns, flipped his board riding backward, and outpaced most others who joined him. I was riding nearby, a dozen or so metres away from Pearce. I could feel his joy radiate.
“That was a good one,” Pearce beamed at the end of the run.
Two years of rehab was less fun. “The craziest process you could ever imagine,” Pearce said. “I couldn’t even explain what I’ve been through. 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.”
Kevin’s mother, Pia, gave him a big hug. She suffered through the ordeal, first receiving the call that Kevin was hurt, then the long and arduous months at his bedside.
“There was a part of me that had a lot of anxiety coming into this,” Pia said. “Now that it’s all in motion, I’m really, really happy for him.”
Pearce has no plans to compete again and Pia has worked with him to understand “his vulnerabilities and his limitations and what the risks are.”
“And that helps me,” Pia said, “when I have to do what any mother of a 24-year-old has to do, which is let go.”
On Friday, Pearce and his family declined to be interviewed. Through a spokeswoman, the Pearces expressed condolences to Burke’s husband and family, and praised Burke the athlete. “My family and I are heartbroken,” Kevin said in the statement. “I will always remember her as a remarkably talented and courageous athlete, an extraordinary person who changed the direction of her sport forever and as someone who provided inspiration to so many.”
Many athletes are injured on the halfpipe, but severe blows are rare. Still, younger riders have turned their focus to slopestyle, which will be included in the Olympics for 2014 and could eclipse halfpipe. Sebastien Toutant of L’Assomption, Que., is 19 and has shot to the top of global snowboarding. He and 18-year-old Mark McMorris of Regina took gold and silver, respectively, in slopestyle at the X Games last year.
In a December interview at Breckenridge, Toutant suggested that halfpipe wasn’t worth the risk, even as he added a youthful caveat: “It’s not because I can’t ride pipe.”
“If I got hurt in the pipe trying to be on top, I would hate it, I would be mad at myself,” Toutant said. “I like to ride pipe when it’s soft, but when it’s icy, I don’t feel like it’s that much fun.”
Mark’s father, Don, the Minister of Health in Saskatchewan, played junior hockey when he was younger and knows all sports are inherently dangerous. But as a dad, he doesn’t let it bother him.
“I have seen [Mark]ride so much, and he always seems to land on his feet,” Don said in an interview Monday. “There are so many ways to get injured. Nobody wants to see what happened to Sarah Burke or what happened to Kevin Pearce. But think of the amount of people snowboarding and skiing. Not to downplay it, I don’t want to downplay it.”
He pointed to the disproportionate attention given to accidents in sports compared with the many successes.
Burke, for instance, became more famous when she crashed compared with her victories. Her four golds at the X Games would merit a couple of lines in the newspaper, if that. Few Canadians had heard of her before Jan. 10.
Don McMorris noted that what may appear ridiculously risky to the uninitiated isn’t so foolishly daredevil when a person comes to know the thousands of hours of training.
“Whether it’s a false sense of security, it helps when you’ve been around it a lot more,” he said. “I’ve seen Mark go off so many different jumps, and try so many different things.”