Sidelined snowboarder and Hanover High alum embraces new mission
Nearly four years after Vermont snowboarder Kevin Pearce suffered a traumatic brain injury in a fall, he's back in action.
His new mission: inspiring others with brain injuries or disabilities to pursue their dreams. And he is embracing it with the same passion that landed him on top of the competitive snowboarding world when he was still a teenager.
Pearce will be the keynote speaker Wednesday at The Moore Center's Annual Celebration, held at Brady Sullivan Plaza in Manchester.
The Moore Center serves individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities and acquired brain injuries. Here's what Pearce wants them to know: "Anything's possible."
"No matter what you're faced with in life or what you have to deal with, if you put the right things in place and deal with them the right way, you can recover, you can come back and live a happy, healthy, fun life," Pearce said in a phone interview from his home in Carlsbad, Calif.
"I fell down and I was at the bottom, in a coma," he said. "Now I'm living proof that if you put the work in and give it the time, you can come back and really have an amazing life."
Pearce, who turned 26 on Nov. 1, is a 2006 graduate of Hanover High School. He learned to snowboard in the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, where the tough conditions made him an equally tough competitor. "It's icy and it's hard, but that's what got me so good and really allowed me to become the rider I was," he said.
He was training for the Olympic trials when he crashed head-first in the half-pipe in Park City, Utah, on Dec. 31, 2009. The fall ended his Olympic dreams - and nearly his life.
He spent a month in intensive care followed by three months in a rehabilitation hospital in Colorado. He had to learn how to walk, talk, even swallow again.Pearce said he remembers "nothing at all" from the day of the crash - or the 27 days that followed.
His injury and recovery were chronicled in an HBO documentary "The Crash Reel," (available on HBO GO). The film captures his transformation from an exuberant, death-defying youth through the post-crash stages of anger, denial and, finally, acceptance.
"The Crash Reel" also documents the powerful love of the whole Pearce family: his father, the renowned glassmaker Simon Pearce; mother Pia; and older brothers Adam, Andrew and David.
Life for Pearce these days is about as different as it could be from the life of a professional athlete.
"But he seems at peace with the change. "I'm pretty lucky," he said.
Before his injury, life was "focused on helping myself and doing as good I could," he said. "That was my goal, to go and win the Olympics."
Now, "I've learned maybe it's more important and more impactful if I can . try and do this for everyone else."
On world stage
He's been to film festivals all over the world to promote "The Crash Reel." He's a "sports ambassador" for the National Down Syndrome Society.
And he and his brother Adam started the "Love Your Brain" campaign, raising funds for, and awareness of, brain injury through the Kevin Pearce Fund (kevinpearce.com).
"I'm still super busy; it's just busy in a whole different way," he said.
The experience has also deepened the bond he's always had with his brother David, who has Down syndrome.
"It's been amazing having David, just because life is so hard and everything is so difficult for him, having Down syndrome. Everything happens so slow."
He didn't fully understand what that was like before, he said. "But now, having a severe, traumatic brain injury, life is a lot harder for me. Things happen much slower. We're just a lot more on the same level."
In "The Crash Reel," it's David who finally gets through to Kevin when he shares his fear that Kevin will die or end up paralyzed if he tries to compete again. Pearce calls him the "star of the film."
Two years after the accident, Pearce did get back on a snowboard to ride with friends. He still rides when he can, but the half-pipe is off-limits; doctors have made it clear another fall could be fatal.
It's difficult to explain just what giving up competition meant to Pearce.
Growing up dyslexic, he said, "I hated school."
But snowboarding "felt like freedom."
"It was only me, and I could do whatever I wanted. And that was the most amazing thing ever, to have that feeling."
He hasn't found anything to match that since. But the work he's doing to help others with brain injuries has its own rewards, he said.
"I was so lucky and so fortunate to be able to get through it . I want to do whatever I can to help everyone else get through it the best way I can."
Some things are still tough.
"Right now, all my buddies are over in New Zealand, training for the Olympics and getting ready for it," he said. "It's tough just knowing that's what I would be doing if this hadn't happened to me."
And a bittersweet honor lies ahead.
Pearce will travel to Russia for the Winter Olympics in February, where he will carry the Olympic torch in the opening ceremony.
"I've never been to the Olympics," he said. "I was ... close to going .
"I'm going in a new way this time."
Pearce said he doesn't dwell on why the crash had to happen to him. "This happened and I've come to accept it . and come to understand I have a new life that I'm living now.
"So asking myself, 'Why me,' the only thing it's going to do is set me back. And I don't like setbacks.
"I'm all about moving forward."