Breckenridge, Colo. • The crowd hollered his name. The cameras rolled. Kevin Pearce grinned, pumped his fist in the air and pulled his goggles down from his helmet brim. And he jetted away on the snowboard that has defined his life. It was like old times for the 24-year-old former professional snowboarder. Maybe even better.
“This was the ride of a lifetime,” he said at the bottom of the Breckenridge slope. “That was really nice. Felt so good.”
Tuesday was the first time Pearce had ridden his snowboard since suffering a traumatic brain injury while training two years ago for his life goal, an Olympic performance.
“Today was a monumental day for us all,” said Pearce’s older brother, Adam. “It’s almost like a part of him was missing for so long and now he feels whole again. Snowboarding was so much of who he was, and now he’s back.”
On New Year’s Eve 2009, the longtime Vermont resident was training in Park City for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. The Olympic hopeful, who was considered the biggest rival for perennial favorite Shaun Whiteâ, was practicing the dangerous double-cork, a spinning double backflip stunt that leaves riders blind to their landing until the last millisecond. A slight miscalculation and Pearce slammed his head hard onto the deck of the 22-foot halfpipe.
The inherently treacherous trick, which would eventually spin White to his second Olympic gold medal, stirred controversy well before Pearce’s accident as snowboarders balked at the suddenly mandatory and scary stunt. The accident stole Pearce’s life and crushed his Olympic dreams. Barely two months before the biggest ride of his career, the elite and widely beloved snowboarder was ripped back to zero. He had to learn to walk, talk and eat.
On Tuesday at Breckenridge’s Peak 8, he was hopping high-speed 180s and riding backward, like he’d never missed a run. Pearce slapped high-fives with friends and hugged strangers. The compelling sticker that emerged in an overwhelming show of support from riders and fans two years ago “I Ride For Kevin” was back, with a slight tweak that replaced “For” with a scrawled “with.”
His former colleagues were laboring in Breckenridge’s huge slopestyle park and halfpipe, preparing themselves for this weekend’s Dew Tour, a contest in which Pearce won a bronze medal in 2009. They would race by in their bibs, wade through the phalanx of cameras following Pearce, and embrace their friend, celebrating his return to their world. He didn’t seem to miss the competition; he never toured the park or stared off at the airborne athletes. He stuck to the groomers with his pals, completely absorbed in the revitalizing thrill of sliding on snow.
Asked what he missed most about snowboarding, he answered: “Just being up in the mountains. Getting away from everything and being on my own.”
The last two years have been a blur of doctors, surgeries, therapy and struggle, he said.
“I can’t even explain what I’ve been through,” he said. “To really get away and get on snow is just so special and I never knew it would be like that. When I was doing it two years ago, I took it all for granted.”
When Pearce emerged from a coma at Salt Lake City’s University Hospital, doctors prepared him for the worst: He may never walk again, they said. Pearce remembers a vision he had in his hospital bed.
“I wasn’t really with it, but I closed my eyes and just pictured being up in the mountains on a chairlift with all my friends and just wishing I was there so bad,” he said. “I’ve finally made it. It’s been such a journey to get here.”
His family and friends were apprehensive Tuesday. Would it come back to the kid who began snowboarding as a toddler? And what if it didn’t?
“I kind of knew he would ride well. But there certainly was a question in the back of my mind. I mean I watched him learn to walk again,” said Adam.
Pearce is hopeful he can now inspire his friends to relish those moments that come so easily to them the everyday events and actions that elite athletes sometimes overlook.
“I really think my friends are starting to appreciate it more after being with me,” he said, turning his face toward the sun setting over the Ten Mile Range. “They realize what they have and they aren’t taking it for granted.”
Danny Kass, a professional snowboarder who counts Pearce as a friend even though they battled in the halfpipe, sees Pearce’s inspiration moving well beyond boarders.
“I think everyone can see his story and recognize how fragile life can be,” said Kass, as he rode a chairlift for one of his first runs since recovering from a knee injury. “So love life. Live life. Get out there and ride.”