Anyone expecting Kevin Pearce's first runs back on a snowboard to be tentative got left in his snow dust Tuesday at Breckenridge after he strapped in and went racing down the mountain, leaving fans and film crews to play catchup. Nearly two years after the traumatic brain injury that sidelined one of the world's best halfpipe snowboarders, keeping him out of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Pearce is officially back in action.
"It felt pretty crazy, and it's amazing to know that it was all still in there," Pearce said, tapping the side of his head after burning through several runs with a small army of his fans and supporters. "I lost a lot of things up in this brain of mine, but it's good to know I still have the snowboarding. It would have been hard if I had gotten out there and couldn't even turn down the hill. I can't even begin to imagine how I would have felt, but it's all still there."
Just to be safe, Pearce started his day with a few morning warm-up runs at Vail with a much smaller group including his brother Adam, longtime sponsor and mentor Jake Burton, and the Frends crew (Danny Davis, Jack and Luke Mitrani, Mason Aguirre and Scotty Lago; motto: "There is no 'I' in Frends") that has stood by him through it all.
"This morning was cool because it was the crew that has gotten me here," Pearce said. "Along with all the work that I've done, it's been them. It's unexplainable to even try to say the amount that they've done for me."
Snowboarding to me is not all about competitions, and it never was. There's this whole other part of snowboarding that is more about ... cruising around and having fun, and that's really where I plan on taking my snowboarding next.” -- Pearce
Pearce reserved special thanks for his brother, who went with him to his physical therapy appointments every day, eight hours a day, for three and a half months as he began his rehabilitation; and for Burton, who custom-made a kid-sized board for him when he was just getting started and has stood behind him ever since. "Jake's just been such a big idol of mine for my entire life, and to have him up there with me this morning was really special," Pearce said.
Still, Pearce said his much-hyped afternoon ride at Breckenridge, where the Winter Dew Tour's Nike Open starts Thursday, was even more important to him. The "I Ride 4 Kevin" stickers that became iconic around snowboarding events in the days, weeks, months and years after Pearce's injury were replaced Tuesday by "Ride with Kevin" stickers, and some of his biggest supporters were among the posse of friends, Frends and fans following him on the mountain.
"Some of the people that I was most happy to be with were the team managers and the people I've worked with as my sponsors -- Burton, Volcom, Nike, Oakley, Amp Energy, Frends -- all these companies that have stuck there so close behind me this entire time and had my back, and not just bailed out because I wasn't able to snowboard," Pearce said. Even the simple act of putting his sponsors' stickers on his new board had him feeling stoked, he said.
For an injured professional athlete unable to snowboard for nearly two years, Pearce has managed to stay surprisingly involved in the sport, working as a commentator at recent events such as last weekend's U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain. He'll be working the mic again this weekend as the Dew Tour competition gets into full swing. "I really wanted to stay connected, be with all my friends and stay involved in the sport, and that was really the best way for me to do it," Pearce said. "It just comes naturally to me. I know this sport so well, and it's easy for me to talk about it."
Pearce, who won the National Rehabilitation Hospital's Victory Award at its 25th anniversary gala Dec. 1 for his new role as a spokesman for traumatic brain injury rehabilitation, emphasized that a tremendous amount of effort went into making Tuesday's ride possible.
"It all came together perfectly. ... Without my recent eye surgery, I wouldn't even be able to look at you right now without glasses on, much less go snowboarding, and I spent a lot of time on my balance board trying to get my vision and my balance working together again," he said. "It's been tons of hard work to get to this point to be ready for this day, and it just feels so good to have it all pay off. Today I reached my goal."
Pearce said his injury and the intense recovery process have taught him more than he ever hoped to know about traumatic brain injuries. "I think the most important thing that I can share with folks about traumatic brain injuries is that your brain never stops healing," he said. "You can heal as much as you want as long as you keep your mind to it and work hard. I think it's really hard for a lot of kids because they think they're in such bad shape that they just give up, and that's been the most important lesson for me: It's hard and it takes a lot of work but you can heal."
The injury also has forced him to reconsider and redefine what it means to be a snowboarder, and to hear him tell it, that hasn't necessarily been a bad thing.
"That's still a pretty big question I have," Pearce said. "Snowboarding to me is not all about competitions, and it never was. There's this whole other part of snowboarding that is more about getting out in the powder, cruising around and having fun, and that's really where I plan on taking my snowboarding next: to the backcountry. I'm not going to go dropping 50-foot cliffs or anything; I'm just going to cruise around and have fun."
In the meantime, he's happy to be living in the moment, and he's well aware that the helmet he was wearing when he crashed in the halfpipe in Park City saved his life. For now he's thrilled to be soaking up the simplest sensations of snowboarding. "It was so cool just to be able to strap into my board, get on the lift and be able to ride down the hill," Pearce said. "I know this so well, and I'm finally back."