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Kevin Pearce’s Recovery: Documentary Looks at Snowboarder’s Journey Back

  • Kevin Pearce has had a long recovery after his snowboarding accident in 2009. (Courtesy photograph)

    Kevin Pearce has had a long recovery after his snowboarding accident in 2009. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Kevin Pearce has had a long recovery after his snowboarding accident in 2009. (Courtesy photograph)

    Kevin Pearce has had a long recovery after his snowboarding accident in 2009. (Courtesy photograph)

  • From left are Christy Pearce, Andrew Pearce, Pia Pearce, David Pearce, Simon Pearce and Adam Pearce. Kevin Pearce is in the middle. (Adam Pearce photograph)

    From left are Christy Pearce, Andrew Pearce, Pia Pearce, David Pearce, Simon Pearce and Adam Pearce. Kevin Pearce is in the middle. (Adam Pearce photograph)

  • Kevin Pearce has had a long recovery after his snowboarding accident in 2009. (Courtesy photograph)
  • Kevin Pearce has had a long recovery after his snowboarding accident in 2009. (Courtesy photograph)
  • From left are Christy Pearce, Andrew Pearce, Pia Pearce, David Pearce, Simon Pearce and Adam Pearce. Kevin Pearce is in the middle. (Adam Pearce photograph)

In December 2009, less than two months before he planned to compete in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, snowboarder Kevin Pearce crashed during a practice run on the half pipe. In Park City, Utah for training, Pearce was attempting a tricky maneuver called the Double Cork when the edge of his board caught the side of the half-pipe, sending him hurtling at high speed some 20 feet down onto the icy surface. His head took the full force of the impact.

Pearce, who grew up in Hartland, was one of the stars of the competitive snowboard circuit, along with Shaun White, and it was widely anticipated that the Olympics would see the two friends compete for gold medals.

By chance, Pearce’s crash was videotaped. You can see Pearce going up into the air, rotating and then disappearing from sight, the view obstructed by a wall of the half pipe. A minute later he lies motionless and unconscious on the ice while friends rush to his side and call 911.

Pearce’s accident and recovery from the traumatic brain injury (TBI) is the subject of the documentary The Crash Reel , which is being shown at 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 22, in Spaulding Auditorium at the Hopkins Center.

The documentary, which has been shown at the Sundance and SXSW festivals, is directed by Lucy Walker, a British filmmaker twice nominated for an Academy Award for her feature-length film Waste Land , about Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, and her short documentary The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom . It will have its television premiere on HBO on July 15.

Pearce, who spent some six months in hospitals and rehab centers in the initial phase of recuperation before returning home for another year of recovery, will be at the screening with his parents Pia and Simon Pearce, the noted Upper Valley glass maker. All three will participate in a post-screening discussion.

“I’m really excited that this is going to be at the Hopkins Center,” said Pia Pearce. “There was a tremendous outpouring of support in this area. … The screening at the Hop is an opportunity for us to say thank you to the community.”

The filmmakers specifically tried to avoid some of the cliches that can crop up in documentaries about athletes: a trajectory of triumph, failure, redemption and triumph again. “We knew early on that we would be making a movie about a different kind of comeback story. It was never going to be a story about Kevin coming back and winning Olympic gold. It was clear from the get-go that a full recovery was not possible given Kevin’s injury and I think we were lucky because that fact alone made the movie different from your usual sports film,” producer Julian Cautherly wrote in an email.

Although it appears that the filmmakers were following Kevin Pearce for a long time before the accident, because there is so much footage of him at home and in competition, this was material that they compiled by combing through every available source of video.

Walker met Pearce at a conference on building a better world that was organized by Nike, one of his corporate sponsors. They fell into conversation, which is how the idea of making a film about his experiences came about. In the end, Walker and her team found 343 other sources of footage, Pearce said, including video of his stays in the hospital shot by his older brother Adam.

“My whole life has been filmed. There’s always a camera around me,” Pearce said matter-of-factly in a phone interview from Carlsbad, Calif., where he now lives. Even so, seeing the documentary for the first time surprised Pearce. What he hadn’t realized until he watched it was just how catastrophic the accident was, and how lucky he was to have survived it.

“It’s really just how bad I was, how far I fell and how low down I was. ... But it’s cool to see what’s possible, you can come back and you can heal if you do have the right attitude, the family and the support,” Pearce said.

There are many angles to the documentary, he said. “It’s about so much more than just me getting a TBI.”

The film touches most closely on Pearce’s close relationship with his parents and three older brothers . But it also considers such issues as the money that goes into promoting sports stars, the nature of friendship, the perennial question of assessing risk, the research being done on brain function after concussions and serious injury, the financial cost of treating such severe injuries, the value of accepting what can’t be undone, and moving forward.

After Pearce had gone through the early stages of physical therapy and psychiatric care, he was intent on getting back to snowboarding as fast as possible. His family, having lived through the accident and the painstaking nature of his recovery, were understandably apprehensive about the prospect of Pearce risking his life again, particularly when scientific evidence suggests that one incident of TBI often leads to a second injury. And the more damage the brain sustains, the harder it is for the brain to heal itself.

Educating the audience about brain injuries was one of the goals of the film, wrote Cautherly. “There is a lot of misunderstanding about concussion and brain injury as it is a very invisible injury.”

A pivotal scene in the film takes place later in Pearce’s recovery, around the dinner table at the Pearce farm in Hartland. Kevin Pearce insists that he plans to return to competitive snowboarding as soon as he can while his parents and brothers gently present their case why he should reconsider. He has no idea, they tell him, what they have been through. Why would he want them to experience even more uncertainty and fear?

Pearce listens politely but is adam ant about going back. Later in the film it’s apparent he’s changed his mind and instead wants to devote time to educating the public about the nature of traumatic brain injuries, and the protective measures to help mitigate them. There wasn’t one moment when the light bulb went off and he decided to step away from the dream of being a competitive snowboarder again, he said, but a succession of them.

“This is the most insane and crazy recovery I can imagine going through, and it’s 100 percent a full-time job. There isn’t one day when the brain injury hasn’t come up. There are so many little things I feel I can share and teach people,” he said.

The changes in his life have been profound, but Pearce is a glass half-full kind of person. He is now a TV commentator on snowboarding, and goes to schools and rehab centers to talk about TBI. Aware that his family’s money and health insurance paid for what was surely extraordinarily expensive treatment, he is also contemplating starting a foundation to help injured athletes who do not have that kind of health care or financial security. His own experiences have showed him that with tenacity and the continued support of family and friends, a person can begin to recover.

“The brain will always heal; it will continue to find new pathways. If you nourish it and love it and take care of it, it will continue to get better,” he said.

The Crash Reel will be shown at 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 22, at Spaulding Auditorium at the Hopkins Center. For information and tickets, call the box office at 603-646-2422 or go to hop.dartmouth.edu.