(This story was first published in the June 13, 2013 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By Katy Savage
HARTLAND — The Pearce family is sitting around their Thanksgiving table at their home in Hartland as the camera shifts across the table. They were discussing Pearce’s return to snowboarding two years after his traumatic brain injury.
“I just don’t want you to die,” said his brother David Pearce, who has Down syndrome.
Kevin Pearce’s eyes swelled with tears. He thought his family had lost faith in him.
“It’s unexplainable to say the amount that snowboarding does for me,” Pearce said. “The amount I love it and just the feeling it gives me to get on a snowboard. I just feel like no one else in this room has that feeling about anything.”
The Crash Reel, the HBO documentary about Kevin Pearce’s brain injury three years ago, documents the Upper Valley native’s loss of his one dream: snowboarding.
Pearce was a favorite for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He was expected to give snowboarding legend Shaun White a run for his money.
In the film, Pearce was standing on top of a half pipe with his group of friends. He was about to do a double cork, a trick he had been practicing. Pearce lost in rock, paper, scissors to his friend Luke Mitrani and did the trick first. Pearce went up in the air, caught his toe edge coming down and fell on nothing but his face on Dec. 31, 2009. He was in Park City, Utah, in his final training days before the Olympics.
“Right away I knew it was bad,” one of his friends, Scotty Lago said.
Pearce spent six weeks in critical care, slowly progressing while other traumatic brain injury patients at the hospital were dying. At the rehabilitation center in Denver, Pearce learned how to walk and swallow again. His family never left his side.
From the day he crashed, all Pearce could think about was his return to snowboarding and conquering the trick he fell on.
Pearce was looking for a way to tell his story to the world. He met two-time Academy Award nominated British film director Lucy Walker at a Nike conference during his recovery.
“Kevin’s story is really inspiring and powerful, not just for someone in a similar situation with a brain injury, but really anyone should be able to take inspiration from how Kevin has come back,” film producer Julian Cautherley said in an email.
The film combined more than 200 sources of footage, from past interviews, competitions and home videos.
The entire filming process was a family effort.
The doctors encouraged the Pearce family to film the recovery so Pearce could see his progress. Pearce’s brother, Adam quit his job to stay by his younger brother’s side. He shot most of the hospital scenes in the film.
Pia Pearce was seen taking her son to doctor appointments and holding his hand during difficult moments.
“I felt that Kevin’s story and his recovery was a story worth telling,” Pia said. “What we’ve learned in this process is that he’s such an inspiration to people and he connects to people in an amazing way.”
Pearce had injuries before — broken wrists, ankles and concussions. He learned how to come back from them.
“I had the experience and I knew what I was going to have to do to fight back,” Pearce said in a separate interview to The Standard. “But I didn’t know to what extent it was going to be.”
Two years after the accident, the sport had progressed beyond what Pearce ever thought possible. Every trick was bigger in the film and snowboarders were doing things that were unheard of before.
Pearce didn’t realize that snowboarding was not a possibility until he got back on snow again. Two years after his accident, he invited his friends to take a run in Colorado. His family waited at the bottom of the mountain, his mom crying and David clinging to her sleeve.
With a permanent scar on his brain that left Pearce clumsier than before, he realized he wasn’t the same snowboarder he once was.
Other injured athletes were interviewed in the film, including freestyle skier Sarah Burke who died of a traumatic brain injury in 2012 on the same half pipe Pearce was injured on.
The audience also learned something new about the Pearce family: they are all dyslexic. Unsuccessful at school, Simon Pearce found success at blowing glass in the same way his son found success at snowboarding.
All of the Pearces were honest and open on camera. Sitting in a room by himself, David explained the difficulties of living with Down syndrome.
“The first thing I want to say about my disability is I don’t like it,” he said. “I don’t like it, I hate it. I want my disability to go away, never come back. I feel stressed out about it. I feel anxiety about it, too. I go to my room and cry sometimes.”
Through his brother’s brain injury, David learns to accept who he is.
Later in the movie, the Pearce family was sitting around the dinner table again. David still had anxiety that his brother would try to snowboard again and get hurt. Pearce promised for the first time that his days of extreme sports were behind him.
The brothers held hands across the table. Pearce accepted he was no longer a snowboard star while David accepted his Down syndrome.
Pearce later said his injury has brought his relationship with his brother closer.
“It put into perspective how hard his life is,” Pearce said. “David has had to overcome so much and has been put through such a hard time…I can understand what living life with daily challenges is like.”
Pearce, who used to travel the world snowboarding, is now traveling the country sharing his story. Three years later, living on his own is still difficult and he still misses his sport. He’s searching for something to replace the thrill of snowboarding.
(The Crash Reel premiered at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, June 22. )
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