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Don Mahler: ‘I’ve Come to Grips With It’; Pearce Spreads the Word About Moving Forward After Brain Injury

  • Hunter Collins, 15, of New Canaan, Conn., center, takes a photo of Carter Ten Haken, 15, of Grantham, N.H. as Ten Haken poses with Kevin Pearce, bottom right, at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, N.H. on August 18, 2013. Pearce spoke to a group of Lacross camp students about his accident, his Love Your Brain Foundation, and took questions from the campers after his presentation. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage

    Hunter Collins, 15, of New Canaan, Conn., center, takes a photo of Carter Ten Haken, 15, of Grantham, N.H. as Ten Haken poses with Kevin Pearce, bottom right, at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, N.H. on August 18, 2013. Pearce spoke to a group of Lacross camp students about his accident, his Love Your Brain Foundation, and took questions from the campers after his presentation. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kevin Pearce speaks to a group of Lacrosse camp students at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, N.H. on August 18, 2013. Pearce spoke about his accident and his Love Your Brain Foundation, before taking questions, posing for photos, and signing autographs afterwards. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage

    Kevin Pearce speaks to a group of Lacrosse camp students at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, N.H. on August 18, 2013. Pearce spoke about his accident and his Love Your Brain Foundation, before taking questions, posing for photos, and signing autographs afterwards. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hunter Collins, 15, of New Canaan, Conn., center, takes a photo of Carter Ten Haken, 15, of Grantham, N.H. as Ten Haken poses with Kevin Pearce, bottom right, at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, N.H. on August 18, 2013. Pearce spoke to a group of Lacross camp students about his accident, his Love Your Brain Foundation, and took questions from the campers after his presentation. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage
  • Kevin Pearce speaks to a group of Lacrosse camp students at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, N.H. on August 18, 2013. Pearce spoke about his accident and his Love Your Brain Foundation, before taking questions, posing for photos, and signing autographs afterwards. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage

They take their ping pong seriously in the Pearce houshold.

As a way to help his injured son, Kevin, along with his rehab following a horrific snowboarding accident on New Year’s Eve morning in 2009, Simon Pearce spent hours at the family ping pong table.

It was just a way to help Kevin regain critical hand-eye coordination as he recovered from the halfpipe accident that ended his competitive career, and almost ended his life.

At first, the elder Pearce had all he could do to keep the games barely competitive as Kevin struggled to keep pace.

Seeing the ball, hitting the ball, tracking the ball — all things he took for granted as a cocky young athlete — he now had to relearn all over again. It was a torturous process, the gains coming in such small increments.

But the young Kevin — with the competitive heart of a champion and the athletic talent of a prodigy — would never concede to his father’s superiority.

Hour after hour, month after month, they played. Some days, Simon’s arm would knot up from the exertion and tension. Still, for all those years, the father schooled the son. Even over this past Christmas, it was still the same: While Kevin’s hand-eye coordination was coming back, he still couldn’t beat his father.

Until this month. Finally, after all the hours, all the work showed results. Just like the old days bombing down halfpipes around the world.

“Now I can’t beat him,” says the father. “It shows the kind of determination Kevin has. It shows that in 31/2 years, he’s made real progress.”

Dud Hendrick has been running a lacrosse summer camp at Cardigan Mountain School for the past 37 years. Along with the expert coaching the campers receive, Hendrick, the former head men’s lacrosse coach at Dartmouth College, always brings a special motivational speaker to the camp each year to inspire the young athletes.

This year’s speaker was Kevin Pearce.

Pearce has thrown himself into this activity with the same ferocious focus he exhibited while charging up the competitive mountain to become one of the top snowboarders in the world. So instead of talking about shredding, corks and grabs, he is instead spreading the word about safety and being smart in the pursuit of riding on the edge — in any part of life — through his Love Your Brain Foundation.

“You can still be crazy, just don’t be an idiot,” he says combining his brand of brutal honesty with a high-pitched laugh.

“This fund is big. After everything that happened, all the help and support I got from so many people, I just felt I needed to do something where I could give back … where I could help someone,” said Pearce before speaking to a group of some 250 campers Sunday night.

“I feel I have a responsibility. There’s so much going on in the world, there’s so much opportunity. I want to be able to make a difference, to help things change.”

The change that has occurred in his life the past 31/2 years is almost too staggering to deal with, and you can see Pearce struggling with it even today.

“I’m still trying to find that juice,” he admits, wondering aloud what will fill the void of competitive boarding. “This is so different. But I’ve come to grips with it. I do understand.”

As his father says with a rueful smile: “He needs to be on his snowboard. He just doesn’t need to be doing tricks.”

That reality is sometimes difficult, as you might expect from someone who competed at the highest level. “Right now, I have friends competing down in New Zealand and I’m here on this stage,” the younger Pearce said. “I’ve just got to tell myself that this is it.”

Whether that is a statement or a question, Pearce is serious about excelling. “This is what I do now, so I want to do it well. You should have seen some of my early talks,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m competitive, so I’m really hard on myself. But I’m getting better at it.”

When he is on stage, putting on his own Powerpoint presentation, Pearce is in his element as a video of his exploits and history plays behind him. And when the part comes of his unimaginable accident, his mother, Pia, sitting up front with her husband, no doubt turns away. To this day, she says, she has not watched the crash.

In charge of the room, Pearce warms to his task. He talks quickly, spicing self-deprecating humor — like when he answered a question about his ill-fated trick, he responded, “It didn’t work out that well for me” — with harsh visions of his battles with life. “In the hospital, I kept wondering if I was ever going to get out,” Pearce recalled.

If anybody in the auditorium has a right to philosophize about life, it is Kevin Pearce. When you come that close to losing everything, you speak with a special voice.

“Things have changed; that’s the hardest thing for me to accept. But I have accepted it,” he told the group.

“You have to understand that whatever you are facing, you can overcome or recover (from). If you put the work and energy into it, you can come back.”

To make his point, Pearce shares with the crowd that while he won’t see his Olympic dreams come true on the hills of Sochi, Russia, next winter, he still will be a part of the Games. When the torch comes to Russia next year, Pearce will be one of the U.S. representatives to carry the Olympic flame.

The crowd of young people sits in rapt attention. Can they really relate — despite their adolescent belief in their immortality — to the message Pearce delivers?

The long and rousing standing ovation at the end of his talk is testament to Pearce’s ability to reach the audience and the power of the message of promise and caution he conveys.

It is best summed up in his website: “Healing never ends. I will win, not immediately, but definitely.”

As Pearce winds up his presentation, a horde of teenagers descends on the stage, surrounding him in a mosh pit of adulation and respect, reaching out to share in his starlight.

“It’s like this wherever he goes,” marvels his mother. “He connects so well with young people. I think they can really relate to what he has to say.”

As the crowd finally thinned out, you could see the look of euphoria on Pearce’s young face. It may not have been like stepping up to the podium, but stepping up to that stage will do just fine.

And maybe, there will still time for another ping pong game when he gets home.

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.