"I LOOK LIKE A DEAD MAN. I LOOK LIKE A FUCKING CORPSE."
Twenty-three-year-old Kevin Pearce is staring at a photo of himself, his body splayed across the bottom of a snowboarding halfpipe. He looks intently at the picture, as if the sight of his fall might help him remember. As if this grainy iPhone image might awaken some long-lost memory, some twinge of what he was thinking just before the right side of his skull slammed into the wall.
But Kevin remembers nothing. He turns away from the scrapbook and leans back into the overstuffed couch. It's the day before Thanksgiving, and the Pearce home in Hartland, Vermont—a sprawling farmhouse set a mile back from the road—is full of visitors. The fire is crackling in the hearth; a soft snow is falling outside. I watch as Kevin's eyes circle the living room, taking in all the family members present. He nods at his dad, Simon Pearce, a noted potter and glassblower, and he smiles at a joke shared with his two older brothers, Andrew, 29, who lives nearby and works for the Simon Pearce company, and Adam, 26, a former snowboarding instructor in Park City, Utah. (Another brother, David, who is 25 and has Down syndrome, lives nearby.) It's a heartwarming scene after a harrowing year. Kevin is alive. "That is what I'm thankful for," says Pia Pearce, his mom. "My son is still here."
Her son is also getting hungry. Kevin asks Pia, for the third time in 15 minutes, what she's making for dinner. Lamb chops, she patiently replies. Kevin nods and shakes his head—the answer reminds him that he's asked this question before. In addition to the strong prescription Oakley glasses he wears—the thick lenses contain a prism that keeps him from seeing double—his lack of short-term memory is one of the few signs that Kevin is still recovering from a near-fatal snowboarding accident on December 31, 2009, in Park City. He turns back to the photo, the gruesome portrait of his injury.
"I might as well be looking at someone else," he says. "That day was the most important day of my life. I mean, it changed everything. But it's all gone."
A YEAR EARLIER. December 2009. Kevin had been working his ass off, getting ready for the Olympic snowboarding trials, less than a week away. His schedule for the previous few months had been a blur of practice, a relentless loop of spins, corks, 1080s, and McTwists. A typical day would begin with a hike up Mammoth Mountain in California, where he'd been living on and off to train, followed by four to five hours practicing tricks on the halfpipe. Then he'd head to the gym, to lift weights and ride the stationary bike until dinner. His only days off were when he was stuck in airports, flying across the country in pursuit of fresh powder. (Kevin could rattle off snow reports like a Weather Channel meteorologist.) His body fat was down to 3 percent.
"I felt like I could never take a day off," Kevin remembers. "I was just entirely focused on getting to the Olympics, on winning at the trials. That was the only thing I was thinking about." His family had already booked plane tickets to Vancouver.
At the time, the Olympic hype machine was in full swing; Kevin had already done interviews with NBC, ESPN, and The New York Times. The snowboarding competition was being framed as a battle between Kevin and Shaun White, 24, the most famous snowboarder in the world. White had won gold in the 2006 Turin Games and become the sole face of the sport, the only male snowboarder ever to grace a Wheaties box and headline Letterman.