Kevin Pearce returns to competition, but takes it easy

Pearce’s return came just two months after resuming snowboarding, but it’s not what you think.

The 24-year-old Vermont native said it was not the beginning of a comeback to halfpipe competition, where Pearce was considered the closest rival to superstar Shaun White for 2010 Olympic gold just months before his near fatal accident.

This was a snowboard race, where boarders keep their feet on the ground. Before his injury, Pearce excelled in the halfpipe, where competitors are judged on jumps, soaring above a 22-foot-deep snow culvert.

Racing was not a reckless endeavor, Pearce said. Anyone who saw his purposeful maneuvering around gates in the enhanced “natural” halfpipe of the 27th annual Legendary Banked Slalom at Mt. Baker could see Pearce’s deliberate approach, one taken in his recovery as well as his December return to the slopes.

Two gates from the finish, Pearce, wearing bib No. 214 and a green-and-orange jacket, checked his speed even further before the last short pitch, took the final banked turn, and crossed the finish ramp to the thudding of gloves and calls of “KP!” from two dozen or so fellow competitors gathered beyond the fence.

“Made it!” he said with a grin.

Pearce finished both leg-burning runs Friday and Saturday, but was disqualified for missing gates and did not make Sunday’s final. Even in the men’s pro division, washouts were common on spring-like granular snow that froze and thawed through the weekend. Pearce was just happy to be there.

“(Friday) I got to see him ride again for the first time since the injury,” said Shayne Pospisil, 26, a racing friend from Pearce’s Okemo (Vt.) Mountain School days. “It touched me in the heart.”

Pearce wears glasses under his goggles to correct double vision, and a black Burton helmet with regular padding. His recovery is ongoing with eye therapy, cognitive therapy and physical therapy, and he travels with someone to help him manage details. On Friday’s run, he fell — a moderate-speed spin-out that was only notable because it was Pearce. He was not injured.

So, why the risk?

“It’s a great way for me to continue in snowboarding, continuing to be a part of it in a whole new way than I used to be,” he said. “It’s so cool our sport has something like this. Everyone’s welcomed me back to the snowboarding community in such a special way.”

The Banked Slalom, where about 350 competitors raced individually against the clock down a serpentine, 2,500-foot course, gave Pearce the sense of belonging that he couldn’t get freeriding or working TV at last month’s Winter X Games and on the pro tour.

“To actually be in it, to be riding with my friends, gives me a whole different feeling than announcing it or sitting there on the sidelines,” Pearce said. “It’s obviously different than just taking a run down a mountain.”

The Banked Slalom has become as much celebration as competition at Mt. Baker, a family-run operation that was one of the USA’s earliest ski areas to embrace snowboarding. Some of snowboarding’s big names, including a handful of Olympians, compete alongside locals of all ages, drawn by the low-key atmosphere that includes a duct-tape trophy for division winners.

“It’s the perfect event to come back to,” said Maelle Ricker, Canada’s 2010 Olympic snowboardcross champion, just before her run Saturday. “It’s fun to see him walking around with a smile on his face.”

Pearce’s mother, Pia, said at first she was “a little alarmed” when she heard Kevin would compete, fearing he might be tempted to go too fast. But she got assurances from him and his brother, Adam, that he was taking a mature approach. His support network of snowboarding friends keep an eye on him, she said, as do those in his home of Carlsbad, Calif., where he returned five months ago from his parents’ Vermont house.

“I feel like he’s come such a long way and really do trust him,” Pia said. “He doesn’t make the same choices I would, but he needs to live his life his own way.”

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