'Outside' at Sundance: Kevin Pearce on the Risks of Snowboarding

Three years after his professional snowboarding career ended with a traumatic brain injury on the half-pipe, Pearce is in Park City, Utah, promoting The Crash Reel, a documentary from Lucy Walker that follows his recovery process

A still from The Crash Reel.     Photo: Dean Blotto Gray

A still from The Crash Reel.

A still from The Crash Reel.

A still from The Crash Reel.

It’s been three years since Kevin Pearce hit his head during a training run in Park City, Utah, resulting in a traumatic brain injury that ended his pro snowboarding career. In the documentary The Crash Reel, which is going to air on HBO this summer, director Lucy Walker follows Pearce in the two years following his accident. It’s a long journey for Pearce, who initially clings to hope and bristles at the doctors and family members who urge him to stay off the slopes. Eventually, though, reality sinks in.

Pearce returned to Park City last week to promote the film, which is screening at the Sundance Film Festival. He sat down with Outside to talk about his current medical condition, the risks of snowboarding, and why it’s so hard for him to watch snowboarding on TV.

How often have you seen the footage of your accident?
I’d seen the footage a bunch of times, so I’m glad [the premiere] wasn’t the first time I saw that. That would’ve been kind of heavy.

What was running through your head as you watched the accident with the audience?
I was thinking I hope they can understand what this means, because it doesn’t look that bad. It’s like, yeah, I catch my front edge and slam, but unless you’re a snowboarder, unless you know what the half-pipe is like and how fast you’re coming down and the force that you have when you catch an edge and how hard I snapped my head, you can’t understand why it happened. The first time I saw it I didn’t even think it looked that bad, and now I see it I’m like, holy shit.

Is this your first time back to Park City since the accident?
I came last year and it was heavy. I came to Sundance for a day—Bing did a commercial of me—and I came and I drove in, and that night when I drove in I was like, damn. My stomach kind of dropped and my heart stopped. I’m doing better this time.

Have you gone back to the half-pipe site?
I haven’t. I have no desire to go back there.

Are you snowboarding much these days?
Yeah, I’ve been snowboarding a bunch. I have been snowboarding a lot differently—it’s not that fun up in the parks around the half-pipes because I can’t do it. So, this is what I am kind of getting into now. [Shows an iPhone video of himself snowboarding.] This is just a couple of weeks ago, up in Canada, and it’s the most amazing thing ever. Getting to ride snow like this, it was kind of like I was floating. I still have a lot of issues with my eyes and when I’m up on the hard runs and bouncing around, because of something going on with my brain, my eyes turn double. There’s two of everything. So when I’m in the snow, all soft and powdery, it’s just freedom. It was so fun.

And this is a doctor-approved activity?
Yeah, yeah, he says it’s all good if it’s just mellow and calming. And he said if it’s just small little waves, it’s all good if I get out and surf. I was surfing a lot this summer and having a lot of fun.

Are you going to try and push it more and more every year?
I don’t know how far I wanna push it. I’m having so much fun right now. I just love life and I’m so happy. I’m not too concerned about changing it and doing more and more. For me, snowboarding was always about doing more and going bigger and doing harder tricks. Now, it’s kind of like just being happy where I am.

You were holding onto hope for a long time. When was the moment when it really sunk in that you’d never be able to snowboard the way you did before?
Yeah, I was holding onto it and was kind of not really trying to let it go and not believing that I had this change in my life. It wasn’t until I got back on my snowboard and could see where I was at that I really understood I needed to change my lifestyle.

Do you watch much snowboarding these days?
I’m going to announce the X Games this week in Aspen, so I’m gonna be watching it all. Besides when I’m doing the announcing of events, I don’t watch it too much. It’s not that fun to watch for me. If I can talk about it, it’s cool. But it’s a battle. Sometimes it is hard when the half-pipe’s really good and it’s a gorgeous day, and it’s perfect conditions. It’s like I wanna be up there, I wanna be doing that. But besides that I’m alright. When it’s cold and rainy and icy, I’m like, Yes! I don’t have to go ride today.

Some people in the film, including your father, talk about how snowboarding is always pushing limits. They wonder if there should be safety measures like capping the height of half-pipe walls. Where do you stand on this?
For me, that’s what really drew me to this sport. That’s what made me fall in love with it—how hard and fast it’s being pushed. That’s obviously why this happened to me, because I was trying to push the sport and take it to the next level. There’s no rules. There’s no one stopping you from doing anything, and I think if that did happen, it would kind of turn a lot of kids away. But I do think you should be told to wear helmets. I think tricks and how you snowboard is one thing, but being safe is definitely another thing.

Some people who watch this won’t understand why you’d want to go back to snowboarding after the injury. What would you say to them?
I say that you have to live that lifestyle and get what I got out of it to understand it. There’s so much more there for me than just snowboarding. It gave me this feeling like nothing else I’ve ever had before, and that’s why I wanted that back so badly.

Did you ever have the thought that you’d rather have another accident doing what you loved than live your life not doing it?
I don’t know, that’s a hard one. I’ve never been asked that question. I have to think about that. I think it depends on the kind of life I was living. If I was living an okay life and not doing what I loved, I think that I might be okay [without snowboarding]. But if I was living a really bad life and not happy at all, I’d rather do what I love and be happy with it and get hurt again.

What is your condition like these days? You mentioned you still have double vision.
Yeah. When I’m on my snowboard and my body’s really moving and bumping, it’s pretty bad double vision. But when I’m just chilling and hanging with you right now, it’s totally fine.

What about your memory? How is that?
The memory is awful. The memory is really tough, and that has probably been the biggest deficit of this. What I’ve been working really hard on and really trying to fix is my memory. That’s a hard one in life, to have such an awful memory.

You’re a spokesperson now for traumatic brain injuries. Are you doing that full-time?
Not really. When I have an opportunity I do that. I let people know what’s going on with me and how big of an issue it is and really how to raise awareness and teach people about it. I got a lot of concussions. I don’t remember how many it was before this, but I’d never heard of a TBI. I never knew what a traumatic brain injury was. So teaching these kids and giving them the knowledge is important—to say this is what happens if you hit your head this hard.

Do you still have sponsors?
Yeah, my sponsors have been insane. Amp has been just insane. They sponsored the rest of the Frends crew and will just get us all together, and that’s what I love most, just being with those guys. And then Burton has stuck with me, and Nike and Oakley, who’s been making all my glasses. So yeah, my sponsors have been very amazing.

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