Snowboarder back from the dead

By Scott Kara

Snowboarder Kevin Pearce with brother David at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Photo / AP
Snowboarder Kevin Pearce with brother David at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Photo / AP

It could have been a scene from a movie. A thrill-seeking pro snowboarder suffers a traumatic brain injury. After emerging from a month-long coma, he is still a man of empty-eyed stares managing only the faintest of hand movements. He finally becomes responsive after hearing his favourite song ... and heads on a path to recovery.

No, that particular scene isn't in The Crash Reel, a film about the life of former champion American snowboarder Kevin Pearce, but it did happen.

His older brother, Adam, played Neil Young's The Believer to him in hospital. Kevin started mouthing the words to the song.

That was more than three years ago - and he's still recovering, but more than anything, he misses snowboarding.

"It's crazy how much I miss it. I do. It's hard not to be able to do it anymore. It sucks, to be straight up with you," says Pearce on the phone from his home in Vermont, before coming to New Zealand this week for a screening of The Crash Reel at the Auckland Film Festival.

He's been to New Zealand many times before, such as the time he won the NZ Open in 2006.

The film documents Pearce's story, from his freakish early promise as a snowboarder and his rise to the top, his accident and rehabilitation, and his pigheaded determination to get back on his board, despite warnings another head injury could kill him.

On December 31, 2009, during a training run, the then 23-year-old landed face-first (yes, he was wearing a helmet) on the heavily compacted snow of a half-pipe in Park City, Utah. At the time he was one of America's top snowboarders, almost certain to make the US team for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, and a potential gold medal winner. For the record, when Kevin was only just out of his coma, his main rival, Shaun White - the rock star of snowboarding, although there was not much love lost between the two when Kevin started beating him - won gold in the half pipe at Vancouver.

"Snowboarding was my lifeblood," he says. "That was what I was putting all my effort, time and energy into and not having that means my life has changed in such an enormous way.

"It's wild to have such a major accident happen to you at such a young age, but then be able to come back and have a full recovery.

"At the same time though, it's not like I'm totally back, but it is like I'm totally back."

Basically, what he's saying is, he's bloody thankful to be alive. Last year, Canadian Olympic skier Sarah Burke wasn't so lucky.

After being in a coma for nine days she died from injuries sustained in a training accident, and The Crash Reel features many other athletes with brain injuries who haven't recovered as well as Kevin.

The film is a moving and action-packed documentary told by British director Lucy Walker with a mix of chilling realism (there are many bone-crunching crashes) and a carefree tone, which is fitting given the casual nature of Kevin and his other snowboarding mates.

Walker, whose 2010 documentary, Waste Land, about Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, was nominated for an Academy Award, pieces together everything from hilarious Pearce family footage of Kevin's early daredevil heroics (like jumping off roofs on to trampolines), to the many clips of him from competitions around the world, and the drunken shenanigans he and his mates got up to on their travels.

The film is also a touching tribute to his family - mum and dad, Pia and Simon, and his brothers, Andrew, Adam and David (who has Down's syndrome) - without whom he may never have made such a recovery.

"Oh God, dude, tell me about it. That's what was so cool about this film is that it shows what I went through, but also what they had to do to help me make it through it. They're amazing people and it's so amazing to be able to share what they have done for me."

Not that Kevin was an easy patient. He had such a "connection" - or perhaps addiction - to snowboarding that he was determined to do it again despite warnings from his doctors and the tearful pleas of his family.

And he did snowboard again, albeit gingerly and briefly. Still, even though he was clearly not up to it, he loved being on the slopes.

"It's brutal because I feel like I can do it, and I feel like I should be able to do it but then there's this part of me that knows it's not possible."

- NZ Herald

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