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A year after halfpipe crash, Pearce recovering

SHARE A year after halfpipe crash, Pearce recovering

DENVER — He's barely visible in the picture on his iPod, unconscious in an intensive-care unit, hidden beneath a raft of tubes, machines and breathing devices. Only a long, mullet-like hairdo — hastily shaved away at the front and sides of his head to create entry points for all this apparatus — gives a hint of who he is.

"That's my third day in the hospital. It's still crazy for me to see those," says the patient, Kevin Pearce, who remembers nothing of that time and is thankful for that. "I would never guess that's what I looked like.

"But that actually wasn't hard for me to see," he says, "because I knew I was going to be OK from all those tubes."

Nearing the one-year mark since the crash on the halfpipe in Utah that nearly killed him, Pearce is doing better than OK.

An up-and-coming snowboarding star, Pearce was working on the toughest, most dangerous trick in the sport — the Double Cork 1260 — a trick that might have helped him beat Shaun White at the Olympics.

Then, the fall — the accident that left him crumpled and seemingly lifeless at the bottom of the halfpipe, needing to be airlifted to the hospital, teetering between life and death. Less than two months after that terrible day, he was walking again. By April, he was out of the hospital. A few months after that, he was back home in Vermont, playing the occasional game of tennis and pingpong to help restore some of his lost eye-hand coordination.

Though there is far to go, a stranger meeting him for the first time would have little clue about all he has been through over the past 11 months. The handshake is firm. The voice strong. The long, blond hair has grown back.

"When you break your leg, you can't walk for however long and you're in a cast," Pearce said. "When you break your head, well, I'm still in a cast but no one can tell."

Pearce returned this week to Craig Hospital in Denver, where his most intensive therapy came in the harrowing weeks and months after his New Year's Eve accident. The report he got during his four-day return to the traumatic brain injury unit was mostly good, even if he didn't hear the news that really would have cheered him up.

"I was hoping to ride again soon, but they said my brain needed to heal for another six or seven months," Pearce said after doctors told him that hitting his head during this still-fragile period could be devastating to his progress. "They didn't give me the answer I was exactly looking for."

He concedes he's impatient. After all, even with all he's been through, Pearce is still, at heart, a 23-year-old snowboarder. Taking it easy has never been how he rolls and after this doctor's appointment, he had to remind himself that even though he's feeling good, there are still miles to go in what has, thus far, been a recovery that only the most enthusiastic of optimists could have imagined.

"It's a slow process," says his brother, Adam. "You get over one thing, then you find the next thing and you have to worry about that for like a month."

But, his family says, the past 11 months have been more of a steady climb than one step forward and two steps back.

Those closest to him see subtle changes in his personality — a more affectionate, inquisitive, outgoing person, more reminiscent of the kid he was growing up than the adolescent and young adult he became. Often, however, people who make it through traumatic brain injuries re-emerge as completely different people.

"From the beginning, I just never had the feeling, like, 'Oh my God, the Kevin I knew and loved is gone,'" says his mother, Pia. "It just doesn't feel that way."

One big clue: Kevin's sense of humor never went away. He brings it into play throughout an hourlong discussion about where he is, what he remembers and where he hopes to go.

"I roll with two pair of glasses," he explains. "But it's not because I'm a freak."

Instead, he uses one for regular walking around and another for up-close vision.

Vision and balance are his two biggest day-to-day struggles.

When he takes his glasses off — stylin' Oakleys with black, rectangular rims, pancake-thick lenses and a prism built in to encourage the eyes to work in tandem — he sees double. That's not great but certainly better than a few months ago, when everything was one, big blur.

Back home in Vermont, his typical day is largely spent doing physical therapy at the gym, where Adam is his partner in everything — working out, having fun, transportation since Kevin can't drive. Even some things you might not expect. "Until a month ago, he had shaved me every single day for nine, 10 months," Kevin says. He's left-handed and because the left side of his body endured more damage, day-to-day tasks such as shaving and handling silverware have been that much more work.

Had the accident not happened, had the family not spent almost every waking hour in the hospital wondering if Kevin was going to make it, they all would have been in Vancouver last February. Instead of the Olympics being the story of Shaun White vs. Shaun White — a contest in which the gold-medal winner was all but preordained and it was only a matter of how he'd do it — it would have been the story of Shaun White vs. Kevin Pearce.

Pearce was that good. He had the tricks. Most notably, he had "That Trick" — the Double Cork 1260 that became the gold standard, the jump you had to throw to win and the most dangerous thing anyone can conceive of, at this point, in a halfpipe contest.

To do the trick, you must flip head over heels twice while spinning 1260 degrees, much of it in a no-bailout position — head pointing down, sometimes hovering precariously above a frozen, unforgiving edge of the 22-foot-high halfpipe.

There's very little margin for error.

This isn't to say Pearce was out of line in throwing that jump on the overcast December day in Park City when he lost his bearings, hit his head and wound up the subject of a "picture in the bottom of the halfpipe where it looks like I'm dead," as Pearce puts it.

Neither he nor his family are using his accident as a wake-up call to change snowboarding, to dial down what is looking more and more like a race to see who can try the most ridiculously dangerous trick above a playing field that is essentially a rock-hard sheet of ice.

"It would be so sad to me if people stopped pushing the level of snowboarding because they thought it was too dangerous," Kevin says.

All he wants is for his experience to push everyone toward wearing a helmet. It's the helmet that saved his life that day.

"It always seemed like the better the rider, the less they wear the helmet, so that part of it is real important," Pia says. "You can't stop the general direction (of the sport), though."

Miracles of modern medicine have certainly played into Pearce's recovery, as has a streak of competitiveness and perseverance only found in those rare athletes who make it to the very top of their sport, which is where Pearce was headed.

But family and friends have been a big part of it, too. He has more than 50,000 followers on Facebook, where his family provides updates and Kevin receives too many words of encouragement to count. And had it not been for Adam and two other brothers, David and Andrew, his mother, Pia, and his father, Simon — well, Kevin is positive he wouldn't be where he's at.

On his return to Craig Hospital, he was struck as much by how far he'd progressed as by the support his family had provided in comparison to those who weren't so fortunate.

"I had these guys with me every single day, supporting me, bringing me breakfast, lunch and dinner," Pearce says, pointing to his mom and Adam. "The support they have given me and what that has done. I can't explain what that does."

Pearce still wants to be part of the sport, even if it's becoming clear that he'll never compete at the highest levels again.

Next weekend, he'll attend a halfpipe event in Breckenridge — his first return trip to the mountain to be among the friends he used to spend almost every day with when he was snowboarding's top up-and-coming star. Undoubtedly, the "I Ride 4 Kevin" stickers will be easy to spot; they sprung up almost overnight after Pearce got hurt, as a sport that can often feel like a big family reunion responded with a predictably heartfelt outpouring.

This doesn't mean the return — and another planned trip next month to the Winter X Games — will be easy.

"It's interesting thinking about being at these contests and seeing my buddies ride the halfpipe and thinking, 'I know I could do that run, I know I could do that trick,'" Kevin says. "It's going to be hard. But at the same time, it's going to be easy, just because of the fact that I've seen the shape I was in, and now, I'm good enough to be at the contest and watch. That's cool."

From Denver, the Pearces were headed to Southern California where Kevin had bought a house a few weeks before his accident but hadn't had the chance to do some of the fix-up work he'd been planning. It will be his first trip back to the house.

"They kept telling me, 'You got a new house.' I kept saying, 'Where is it? What does it look like?'" said Pearce, whose first post-accident memory is getting on the airplane from Salt Lake City to Denver about 35 days after the wreck. "I didn't know anything about it. Then, after about five months, I finally realized, I had this house. It needs a lot of work."

Fixing it up will be another milestone in Kevin's long road back to recovery — a second chance that started with the typical post-accident question: "Why me?" He still asks that question — and will for the rest of his life — only now it's in gratitude for the miracle he's been given.

"So many things had to go right," says his brother, Adam. "Luck had to come into it. It's crazy when you go down the list of things that had to go right for him to be where he is. It's a testament to who he is as a person, but a lot of things had to go the right way."