Nearly 12 months after sustaining a traumatic brain injury during a practice session, pro snowboarder Kevin Pearce plans to return to competition -- as a spectator at the Winter X Games, Jan. 27-30.
Pearce, 23, has not strapped in on snow since crashing and striking his head Dec. 31, 2009, while attempting a double cork in a halfpipe at Park City, Utah. He was practicing the move -- which only a handful of riders had begun performing earlier in the year -- in advance of the 2010 Winter Olympics, where he was favored to win a medal for the United States snowboard team.
Although he was wearing a helmet at the time, Pearce's injury was unprecedented for competitive snowboarding. He spent a month at the University of Utah Hospital before beginning rehabilitation at Craig Hospital in Denver. In May he returned home to Norwich, Vt., where his rehabilitation continues.
In September, snowboarder Danny Davis said Pearce had begun doing kick flips again on his skateboard. "It's crazy how I'm still making so much progress and it's been so long," said Pearce by phone last month.
With continued progress, he hopes to ride again by the end of the coming season.
"It's really unknown at this point but I think that I will get back on the board sometime at the end of this season, which would be really exciting if I could just ride around a little bit," said Pearce, who relies on friends and family to drive him to therapy because he no longer has a driver's license. "But after seeing the photos of what I went through and how greatly this whole recovery has been. I think it's worth waiting and doing it correctly instead of trying to push it."
First, Pearce plans to attend the Winter X Games. There, he will reunite with his pro shred peers and the collective known as the Frends crew, at what will be his first competition since the accident.
"It's crazy just to be kind of thinking of standing there in the halfpipe at the top or bottom and just watching all my friends ride," said Pearce, who has won four X Games medals. "Still feeling like I can do all those tricks and not being able to get in the halfpipe and ride with them I feel like is just going to be the craziest and most insane feeling ever. I still feel like I'm so competitive. To have to watch that: I can't even begin to imagine how hard it's going to be for me."
The hardest part: Confronting the likelihood that even with continued rehab, his injury will be permanently career-altering.
"I feel like it will be a huge step when I can get past that point and realize, 'OK, I'm never going to do this again'," he said about halfpipe competition, "and just start to be OK with that. I've just got to understand that and I feel like I will get to that point. I'm just not sure how long it's going to take. I don't know what the whole process is going to be like."
Meanwhile, Pearce said he's been heartened by well-wishes received from fans on Facebook. The snowboard community, too, has shown support, particularly with stickers placed on boards in honor of Pearce, reading: "I Ride for Kevin".
Through Facebook, Pearce has gotten acquainted with others who sustained traumatic brain injuries. Their experiences have put his recovery into perspective.
"I talked to this one girl that can barely talk and this other kid that can't see and can't walk," he said. "All these incredible stories that I've heard and that fact I'm talking to you so fine and walking around, I feel like I'm so capable of so many things, and I'm still going to do so much more recovery.
"It's unbelievable how lucky I am to be in the position I am in," Pearce said. "I feel so lucky for that."