"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.
The rise of the charismatic Pearce, however, presented White with his first serious challenger. White himself embraced the competition, telling reporters that "Kevin Pearce is the only one trying something similar." Their rivalry began in earnest at the January 2009 X Games, in Aspen, Colorado, during the last round of the superpipe event. On their final runs, Pearce and White performed a similar set of tricks. Although Pearce was widely perceived to have gone bigger, White was awarded a slightly higher score by the judges. Several snowboarders, such as third-place finisher Antti Autti, disagreed with the result. "I think Kevin went the biggest and was supersmooth, so he deserved the win," Autti told one reporter.
Although Pearce was gracious in defeat—"It was just a great night for snowboarding," he told the cameras—the loss was yet another reminder that the only way he'd win at the Olympics was if he pushed the acrobatic envelope like White did. "The thing about snowboarding is that nobody has any idea where the limits are," Kevin says. "That's what makes the sport so exciting. The guys [on tour now] are trying stuff that would have seemed impossible a few years ago."
There was one trick in particular that Kevin was determined to land—the double cork 1080. A frontside 1080 is straightforward: the rider rotates his body three times in a single plane, twisting in the air. The double cork, however, takes those spins and inverts them. After the rider leaves the lip of the halfpipe, hurling himself up to 20 feet in the air, he must whip his head toward the ground in a diagonal flip. Then he must flip again and find a way to land on a slick slope of rock-hard ice. There is no bailout position. Even hairier, the move is executed blind—the rider can't see the landing until the last second. There is no harder move in snowboarding, and perhaps no more dangerous maneuver in all of professional sports.
Kevin was aware of the risks. In the months before the Olympics, he'd become worried about the possibility of a serious injury. "I knew that I was trying some crazy moves," he says. "I was crashing a lot, and sometimes I'd crash and be like, Shit, that was close! You get close enough times and you start to think about what it would be like if something really went wrong." Nevertheless, Kevin continued to practice the double cork at a halfpipe in Mammoth, perfecting the trick through sheer trial and error.
Shaun White, meanwhile, was perfecting the same move in the Colorado backcountry. That year, Red Bull, one of his sponsors, had built White a private halfpipe in the Silverton wilderness at an estimated cost of $500,000. What made this setup special was its soft landing pit, a 30-foot-long metal cage filled with black foam pillows.
But even White has had some close calls. In one particularly fraught moment, he was attempting a double McTwist 1260 less than an hour before the 2010 X Games superpipe final in Aspen, a few weeks before the Vancouver Olympics. He came up short on the last flip, slamming his jaw into the ice. His helmet flew off his head. White walked away. "Of course there is a level of intimidation and fear when trying a new trick," White wrote in an e-mail. "But I have learned over the years that you have to know your level of confidence and let that rule over fear."
Kevin hadn't been so lucky. In June 2009, he fractured his ankle while attempting a double cork in Mammoth—the injury sidelined him all summer. Kevin shows me a video of the accident on his cell phone: he flies into the air, completes his sequence of blind flips, and then slams his board into the edge of the lip. The force of the impact sends him sliding down the slope face first.
Once the ankle healed, Kevin immediately returned to the double cork. "I felt like I really didn't have a choice," he says. "I knew that if I wanted to win, I needed to land it."
Such fearlessness has been a hallmark of Kevin's snowboarding career. His first trip to the hospital came after a junior boardercross competition when he was ten years old. Kevin's brother Adam, who was three years ahead of Kevin in school, was leading the snowboarding race going into the final jump. "I knew that Kevin was doing everything he could to catch me," Adam says. "When he got to the last jump, he took off into the air. Instead of speed-checking, he straight-lined it, overshot the landing by ten feet, and slammed into the fence." Kevin won, but he left in an ambulance with a sprained wrist.
Or consider Kevin's performance at the 2007 Nokia Air and Style competition in Munich. There were 28,000 people in the stadium, and Kevin was in second place heading into his final run. "I'd just done a 1080 [backside], but I knew that wasn't going to be enough," he remembers. "So I figured what the hell and just launched into a cab 1260, which meant that I needed to add another turn. I'd never even tried that shit before. I guess I got a little lucky." The crowd went crazy when he landed the move.
Less than a week before the Olympic qualifier at Mammoth Mountain, Kevin flew to Park City to practice the double cork. On the afternoon of December 31, 2009, he walked to the halfpipe for a training session with Luke Mitrani, a fellow member of the FRENDS collective, a group of seven "pro and bro" snowboarders that began as a means of staving off the loneliness of the pro tour and has since become its own brand, with a full line of eco-friendly headphones. (FRENDS is spelled with no I because the collective likes to say there is no "I" in friends.) Kevin and Luke played rock-paper-scissors to determine who would ride first. Kevin won.
After a few minutes of warm-up grabs and 720s, Kevin began preparing himself for the double cork. Other snowboarders gathered; they watched as Kevin collected speed and then headed straight upward. As soon as he was airborne, he began the double flip, pulling his board over his head. But something was wrong: Kevin was flipping too hard, overrotating. He continued twisting, playing out the tragic inertia of the trick.
Kevin struck the ice with his forehead, just above his right eye. It was a sickening sound, everyone said, the most violent crash they'd ever seen. Kevin slid, limply, to the bottom of the pipe. He would not open his eyes for another ten days.
PIA PEARCE, WHO'D GONE out to dinner, got a call from Simon, who was at home in Vermont. At first it seemed like just another accident, yet another crash for a mom accustomed to the crashes of her sons. (In recent years, Kevin had suffered at least four concussions; Adam had hairline fractures in his back and ruptured his spleen.) "They told us Kevin had hit his head but that he was wearing a helmet," Pia says. "We had no idea how serious it was." A few minutes later, one of Kevin's friends at the scene called back."He told us that it was really bad and that we needed to come," Pia remembers. "That's when I started to really worry. No one had ever told me to come before."
The family immediately arranged a chartered flight to Utah, racing to the airport on New Year's Eve. Just as they were getting into the car, Pia heard from the doctors at the University of Utah hospital. "They weren't calling to give me an update about his condition," she says. "They were calling to ask if they could put a drain in his brain. I didn't know what to say."
When the family arrived at the hospital, they were greeted with more bad news. Kevin had suffered a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI); his left eye socket was broken and he was leaking blood deep within his brain. The doctors weren't sure if Kevin would survive or if he'd even wake up. Even if he did, they warned the family to have low expectations: Kevin might never be able to walk or talk. Such grim uncertainty is standard with TBIs, as much of the damage is not caused by the initial crash. (The bony skull is the ultimate helmet.) Instead, the damage occurs in the hours and days that follow as the brain tissues swell with fluid and neurons are starved of nutrients.
The family was led to the ICU, where Kevin lay heavily sedated. Adam recalls the scene: "The first time I walked into the room, I looked at him and thought he was dead," he says. "Tubes everywhere, shit beeping, his head all bandaged. I couldn't believe this was my brother. I couldn't handle it. I walked right out and cried for hours."
Meanwhile, the snowboarding community was in shock. "When I learned how serious it was, I was blown away," White remembers. "I didn't know how to feel with something like that happening so close to home. It's something you don't want to hear or believe." The FRENDS collective distributed I RIDE FOR KEVIN stickers at the U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix on January 23, 2010, in Park City. As Kevin lay in an ICU 30 miles away, the decals were plastered on nearly every board. A Facebook tribute page for Kevin picked up more than 50,000 fans. A few weeks later, FRENDS member Scotty Lago would dedicate his bronze medal in the halfpipe to Kevin. "It was a real intense moment for the sport," says Keir Dillon, another member of the FRENDS crew. "Before Kevin's accident, I don't think people were really worried. We knew the moves were a little risky, but it was just broken bones and stuff. But then hearing that one of your best friends was almost dead? That changes everything."
After 48 hours, Kevin's condition stabilized. Although he was still on a breathing tube, the swelling in his brain started to retreat; he began blinking and jerking. And then, after six days in a deep coma, Kevin began to wake up. It was a gradual process, not the sudden stirring that happens in the movies. "At first you're not even sure that it's real," Pia says. "It's hard to describe, but he just seemed more there, more present in the room. He started responding to little things, like when we'd tell him to wiggle his toes." Simon describes the first time his son squeezed his hand after the accident as "completely incredible … A moment that I'll never forget. I felt like he was trying to tell us that he was coming back."
It remained unclear, however, whether Kevin was still Kevin. This is often the hardest part of dealing with a severe TBI: the survivor may not emerge the same person.
Relief arrived in the form of a middle finger. It was the third week of January, and the entire family was still camped out in the hospital, spending every waking hour in a tiny ICU room. Nobody remembers what Andrew, the oldest of the Pearce brothers, actually said—"It was probably just some stupid teasing," Andrew says—but everyone remembers what Kevin did in response: he flipped his brother off. For the family, there was no more reassuring gesture. "I started laughing and laughing," Pia says. "I was so relieved. Because at least I knew that Kevin still had the same sense of humor. I knew he was still there."
The next day, Kevin began moving his lips to "The Believer," a Neil Young song. "It was the weirdest thing," Adam says. "We'd play this one tune, and he'd be mouthing all the lyrics with his eyes closed. It was like he was singing along." The song itself is a jaunty melody, with a deeply comforting chorus: "I'm makin' the change, I'm keepin' my faith in you. Oh yeah, I'm the believer, babe. I believe in you."
But the devastating scope of the injury was becoming clear. Kevin, for instance, had virtually no awareness of his new limitations. He was suffering from frequent focal seizures, and he didn't realize that he couldn't walk, or that his short-term memory had all but vanished, or that the left side of his body was exceedingly weak. As a result, the doctors were forced to restrain him in bed. For the family, these weeks were some of the most trying as the elation over Kevin's survival gave way to the brutal reality of his injury. Kevin would be coping with this wound for the rest of his life.
After nearly a month in Utah, Kevin was airlifted to the Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado. The world-renowned rehabilitation center is dedicated to the treatment of spinal-cord and brain injuries. His first memory after the crash is of the plane ride to Colorado.
REHAB DID NOT begin well. The Olympics were on every television, and Kevin wasn't there. He struggled to adapt to his grueling new routine, in which he was forced to constantly confront his frailties, relearning how to walk and eat and remember. Kevin was frequently confused, and when he wasn't confused he was depressed.
The medical news was also challenging. According to Dr. Alan Weintraub, medical director of the Brain Injury Program at Craig Hospital, Kevin's injury wasn't limited to a particular corner of the cortex. Instead, the impact from his fall had triggered bleeding in the white matter deep within his brain. These are the tissues that bind our thoughts together, and their defining feature is the presence of myelin, a fatty material that insulates our nerve cells, much like the rubber around a power line. Such insulation accelerates the transmission of electrical signals, allowing the brain to process information and execute complex movements with efficient ease. (If ordinary neurons are like a winding country road, these cells are a fast interstate.) Interestingly, myelination seems to increase with practice, suggesting that the insulation and repetitive use of our neurons play an important role in the development of expertise. (This is what's known as muscle memory.) When Kevin was practicing his 1080s, rehearsing the same move again and again, he was building up these myelin sheaths, increasing the speed with which his brain processed the acrobatics. Instead of worrying about the details—that complex choreography of muscle—Kevin was able to simply will himself into motion.
But Kevin's athletic gifts were all gone, leaving him stuck with a body that didn't know how to move and a mind that didn't know how to think. "It would have been difficult enough if Kevin had just lost his ability to snowboard at an elite level," Weintraub says. "But he also lost some very fundamental cognitive skills, such as moving his limbs and maintaining his attention and even coordinating the movement of his eyes."
The goal of rehab is to rebuild these skills. In essence, it's the process of rebuilding those interstates, triggering stem cells in the brain to regenerate myelin sheaths. Kevin eventually threw himself into rehab, bringing the same single-minded focus to his recovery that he brought to his sport. He often spent ten hours a day working out, pushing his legs to walk and willing his eyes to see. He practiced past closing time in the hospital's balance room and insisted on repeating his short-term-memory drills until he got everything right. His parents and brothers moved to Denver, living for weeks out of a succession of hotel rooms. When Kevin felt tired, Adam would turn rehab into a competition, forcing him to try harder. "When my brother's doing it with me, I work my ass off," Kevin says. "And you know why? Because I'm trying to beat him."
This sibling competition has a long history: the Pearce brothers have been trying to outdo one another their entire lives. They began competing in snowboarding before it was even a sport. In one of the first snowboarding movies ever made, One Track Mind—produced by their uncle Michael McDonnell—Adam and Andrew are shown racing down Quechee Ski Hill in Vermont. Their wooden boards had been custom-built by a friend of the family named Jake Burton, who would later found Burton Snowboards. A few years later, Jake gave Kevin the first child-size snowboard produced by the company. He was six years old.
Kevin became obsessed with riding the nearby Vermont mountains. "That's all he ever wanted to do," Pia says. "He'd wake up and start tearing down the hallway while putting his gear on. He couldn't wait to get outside." And yet, even as Kevin and his brothers fell in love with the sport, they found themselves floundering in the classroom. Dyslexia runs in the Pearce family. Simon has struggled with reading his entire life, and his sons inherited the disorder—Andrew, Adam, and Kevin were all diagnosed with severe dyslexia as young kids. Pia believes that the challenges of dyslexia drove the boys outdoors; snowboarding was their escape from the stress of school. To encourage them, Simon and Pia renovated an old barn on their Vermont property, filling the loft-like space with Ping-Pong tables and a skateboarding ramp.
Kevin gets emotional when he talks about the support of his parents. "You've got to tell people that they're the reason I was able to do anything cool," he tells me. "They didn't hassle me about report cards or grades or whatever. They just wanted us to keep on doing what we loved. It would have been so easy to kill it, to tell us we shouldn't spend so much time snowboarding, but they did the opposite. They're the best."
As soon as Kevin was old enough, he joined Adam at the Stratton Mountain School, a skiing-and-snowboarding academy in Vermont. The boys would ride in the mornings and then study in the afternoon. The two brothers quickly developed an intense rivalry, pushing each other to attempt moves that they'd only read about in magazines.
It soon became clear that Kevin had a unique talent and was capable of competing with the best riders in the world. He decided to skip college and join the pro circuit, signing sponsorship deals with Nike, Burton, Oakley, and others.
Weintraub, whom Kevin calls "Dr. Dude," believes that the constant presence of the Pearces played a crucial role in Kevin's recovery. "When we talk about the long-term impact of a TBI, it's not just about the injury," Weintraub says. "Different people can have the same basic injury and end up in very different places. That's because the network people have in place to help them get through rehab, to help them deal with all of these new life challenges, is one of the most important factors in the recovery."
After three months at Craig, Kevin had made remarkable progress, far outpacing his doctors' initial expectations. One day he was walking; the next day he was running. His seizures faded away, and his left side regained strength. On May 1, 2010, he moved home to Vermont.
When I first met him, last November at the Pearce home, he brushed aside talk of improvement. Although he looked like his old self—his long brown hair had grown back—Kevin insisted that his normal appearance was an illusion. "I'm still so messed up," he said. "People tell me I keep on getting better, but I don't really notice it. All I can think about is how far I still have to go." Kevin showed me an iPhone video of himself skateboarding the day before—"Don't tell my mom," he whispered—and pointed out all the problems with his attempted tricks. He wasn't just bothered by his lack of body control: he quickly rattled off a list of other complaints, such as the drowsiness triggered by his antiseizure meds or not being able to beat Adam at Ping-Pong or even make sense of NBA games. "I used to love watching basketball, but now it's all a blur," he said. "The only one I can follow is Shaq."
Even as Kevin raged against his remaining symptoms, he seemed to marvel at the unexpected ways in which the injury had changed him as a person. "I've become way nicer," he said. "I'm now a much better listener." He's also developed new food cravings: since the accident, he's become obsessed with basil pesto, and he insisted that I help him and Pia make a big batch. "I really didn't like pesto that much before, but now I put it on everything," he said. "It's crazy how tasty it is." When Kevin put his feet up on the coffee table, he announced that this is also a new habit. "I would never put my feet up before, but now I always do it," he said. Even his musical tastes have changed: although Kevin used to like hip-hop, his favorite artist is now Neil Young. I asked him for his favorite song. "‘The Believer,' for sure," he said. And then he started to sing.
THE LAST TIME I see Kevin is on the beach in late December in Carlsbad, California, a sleepy town about 35 miles north of San Diego. Kevin is here to see a tiny cottage he bought a week before the crash but didn't move into. Unfortunately, he has no memory of the place. He doesn't know what it looks like or what he was thinking when he bought it. He thinks he chose Carlsbad for the weather—"I guess I wanted to be somewhere warmer," he says—and because he loved to surf in the off-season.
The house's renovation is being overseen by his dad—"Oh, man, it's a mess in there," Kevin says—and so we meet instead at his motel. It's been two months since our time together in Vermont, and I'm startled by Kevin's progress. Although he still has some blurred vision, his eyesight is improving so quickly that he gets new prescription Oakleys about once a month. (Kevin still works with all of his sponsors—his clothes are plastered with logos.) He's back to watching Celtics games. His short-term memory has also dramatically improved—he no longer repeats the same stories or asks the same questions. When Adam leaves to pick up sandwiches, Kevin never wonders where his brother has gone or when the chicken pesto is coming.
The only downside is that, as the effects of the trauma recede, Kevin's becoming increasingly aware of his persistent shortcomings, those problems that rehab can't fix. Studies of severe TBIs demonstrate that not all white matter can regenerate, even after years of therapy. Although the brain is a plastic organ, able to heal itself, the healing remains circumscribed. And so Kevin feels stuck in limbo, increasingly mindful of what his mind can't do. He now remembers when he forgets. He notices when he can't pay attention to things, when his mind drifts away in the middle of a conversation, or when he loses his place in a paragraph. At the motel, I watch him read a fan letter from a young snowboarder. The words come slowly, haltingly; he has to repeat several sentences out loud to decipher their meaning. By the time he's finished, his face betrays a mixture of fatigue and pleasure.
Earlier in December, Kevin was back at Craig, getting an update from the doctors on his progress. (He continued rehab in Vermont, spending several hours every day on memory and attention issues at the local hospital.) Although the family is proud of the medical report from Craig—"If you'd told me when Kevin was in a coma that he would be like this within a year, I never would have believed you," Pia says—I can see that something is bothering Kevin. After a little prodding, he admits that the doctors gave him some disappointing news. Because the brain heals very slowly, it's essential to avoid the possibility of a second injury, lest the recovery become undone. (This is why NFL players are now sidelined for weeks after even mild concussions.) "The doctor told me I can't go riding," Kevin says. "My brain is still too fragile. Six more months." He looks, for a moment, unbearably sad.
"You have to remember, riding is all I've ever done," Kevin says. "It's what I know. It's the only thing I'm good at. So yeah, I miss it an insane amount. When I close my eyes, I can still remember what it feels like, that feeling of coming down [a slope] by myself. There are no words for it."
While impatiently waiting for clearance from his doctors, Kevin has begun experimenting with his first solo trips. In December he attended his first contest since the accident, spending a few days with friends on the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, Colorado. Although the trip was a logistical success—Kevin navigated the airports without getting lost—there were some difficult moments. "Every day, I'd walk out of the house and think for a second that I'd forgotten my board," Kevin says. "But then I'd be like, Oh, wait. Never mind. That second sucked."
In January, Kevin attended the X Games in Aspen. Although he enjoyed his time in the ESPN announcing booth, it was extremely hard not being part of the action. He still feels like a fierce competitor, constantly thinking to himself about how he would beat that score or outdo that trick. At night he still dreams of landing double corks. And then he wakes up.
The good news is that Kevin will ride again. Although his halfpipe days are over—another TBI would have devastating consequences—his doctors believe he'll soon be able to show off in powder. Kevin is mostly satisfied with this compromise, as he's always preferred "cruising" in the backcountry anyway. Before the accident, Kevin had told Adam that he was going to cut back on competition after the Olympics. "The sport is just too crazy now," Kevin says. "It's all about kids hitting tricks. No smoothness, no grace." Although he refuses to use his injury as a call for reform—"The only lesson of my crash is that riders should wear helmets," he says—he remains uneasy about the direction of the pro tour and the constant one-upmanship among adolescents. (At the most recent X Games, Norwegian Torstein Horgmo became the first snowboarder to land a triple cork in competition.) Kevin believes that the sport should be about more than degrees of rotation and blind flips, that not every new move should require a cushioned halfpipe to develop. "When I start riding again, I want to go to places where no one has ever ridden before, where you have to hike up for hours," he says. "It sounds cheesy, but I want to show people that snowboarding can also be beautiful."
Of course, that kind of cinematic terrain is not always safe: Pia reminds Kevin that the backcountry is full of cliffs and avalanches. But Kevin is undeterred. When I ask him whether he thinks he'll always be involved with snowboarding, his first answer is "Of course!" But then he seems to reconsider as the reality of his injury seeps in. "I guess I really don't know," he says. "Life is pretty crazy. I'm not thinking too far ahead."
"I spent my whole life on this sport, working so hard at it, and now it's all finished," Kevin says. "But I'm realizing now that other stuff makes me happy, too. There's more to life than landing a trick."
A few days later, Kevin calls with big news; I can feel his excitement over the phone. "I got my driver's license, bro!" he yells. "I passed the test! I'm a free man!" For the past few months, Kevin has been fixated on getting behind the wheel. But the last hurdle to independence was cleared in late March when Kevin moved to Carlsbad. "It's been a super-intense year," he says. "But it feels really good to know that, even after everything that's happened, I'm back on my own."