This Is Not Shaun White

For more from writer Alyssa Roenigk on Kevin Pearce—including quotes from Terje Haakonsen, more on FRENDS, and tips on glassblowing from the Pearce family—check out the ESPN Mag.com Writer's Notebook.

Three years ago, Kevin Pearce sat alone in the converted barn in Norwich, Vt., that he shared with two older brothers as a bedroom-slash-party pad growing up. But the barn was anything but quiet. Winter X Games announcers screamed from the TV while Pearce watched his best friends compete—live! on ESPN!—in snowboard superpipe. Being with them—live! and in person!—would have been too tough for him to handle. Two of his friends, Danny Davis and Scotty Lago, were competing at Winter X for the first time; another, Mason Aguirre, was riding at his fourth. Pearce knew he should have been there too. After all, he's the oldest of this tight group. (Now 21, he has nine days on Aguirre, 11 on Lago and seven months on Davis.) Heck, Shaun White, just a year older than Pearce, was at Winter X for his seventh time. Seventh time! And White won. Again.

As Pearce watched his friends, he imagined himself riding at these games. He imagined landing his tricks, making finals, being mobbed at the bottom of the pipe. He had never cared much about competition, but something changed as he watched the guys on TV. He realized he didn't have to give up the side of snowboarding he loved—the friendships and fun—to be the serious competitor he'd been as a soccer standout in high school. "We all came up together," Pearce says. "But they were all there. That was hard. That was the year that motivated me."

That was also the year Pearce began to prove that being first out of the gate is overrated. Yes, his peers had adjectives like "first" and "youngest" tacked to their accomplishments, but Pearce knew in his heart that he could still become the best and most consistent rider in the world. There was just one problem: He had always heard that to be the best—especially in an individual sport such as snowboarding—a person must be relentlessly self-focused, inwardly driven, even willing to ignore the feelings of friends. To be a Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods or Shaun White, an athlete must be unwavering in his dedication to one thing: winning. To be great, an athlete must stand alone. That's why sidekicks are for superheroes, not sports stars.

Pearce wanted to be successful, but he also knew a bunch of medals would mean nothing if he couldn't share them with friends—his true connection to the sport. When he started riding as a kid, he went to nearby Ascutney Mountain and goofed off with his brothers. Later, he rode with buddies at Vermont's Stratton Mountain School, then competed on the junior circuit and as a member of the Burton team. "People think that to be Kelly Slater or Tiger or Shaun, you have to be a certain type of person," Pearce says.

"I think it would be cool to see someone change that idea to stay true, have fun and prove that you don't have to do it on an island. I think, in snowboarding, it's possible."
A few guys have come close. Above all, Pearce respects snowboarder Danny Kass, because he won two Olympic silver medals and seven Winter X medals while running Grenade, the glove company he founded with his brother and staffed with friends from high school. Kass had the talent and personality to be the snowboarder on the cover of mainstream magazines, but what he didn't have was the discipline or desire to trade weekends partying with the Grenerds (as they call themselves) for practice time in the pipe. "So he never took that step Shaun has taken to transcend the sport," Pearce says.

The X Games were just one highlight of White's dominant 2005-06 season. That year, he won all six major halfpipe contests, including Olympic gold, to notch the only undefeated snowboard season in history. "Around the Olympics, when he learned all those new tricks, Shaun was so far apart from the rest of us," Pearce says, shaking his head to toss his long hair—bleached blond from days spent surfing near his Carlsbad, Calif., home—from his eyes. In every contest, White used a variation of the run he learned in the summer of 2005: front-side air-McTwist, back-to-back 1080s, back-to-back 900s. No other rider had a run that could beat him. Snowboarding had become the Shaun White show, and even White was getting bored. "You hit a wall," he says. "Winning with the same run doesn't do much for me."

Meanwhile, Pearce and his friends, who call themselves FRENDS, were climbing the snowboard ranks. They rode together when they could, pushing each other to try bigger and more technical tricks. When they competed against one another, they held nothing back, but they still remained tighter than a downhill race suit. White finally lost a halfpipe contest when he fell on both runs at Winter X 2007. (Pearce, in his first X Games, finished fourth.) But even though Steve Fisher had the gold medal around his neck, everybody knew White was untouchable if he landed his runs.

Well, not everybody. Pearce added back-to-back 1080s to his halfpipe run, building his confidence. He began spending more time at the gym, adding several pounds of muscle to his 5'10" frame. Suddenly, White—and every other rider, for that matter—started looking over his shoulder. Pearce went on a tear after the X Games. In February, he won slopestyle at the Nippon Open in Japan and quarterpipe at the Arctic Challenge in Norway.
In March, he finished fourth at the U.S. Open (won by White). That December, Pearce won big air at Air & Style in Munich.

But all of that was merely Pearce's warmup act. In January 2008, a week before Winter X, he and White met in Laax, Switzerland, for the Burton European Open. It was their first head-to-head competition since the 2007 U.S. Open, and they turned in one of the most electrifying halfpipe finals the sport has seen. Both riders were virtually flawless. White spun like a top, landing a new trick—the 1260 (three-and-a-half rotations)—and back-to-back 1080s. "Shaun got to the bottom of his last run and was claiming," Pearce says. "He thought he'd won." Pearce then dropped in and threw back-to-back 10s, followed by a 900 to a cloud-scraping McTwist (an inverted 540). His tricks were higher, his spins tighter, his style smoother than White's. And the judges gave Pearce the highest scores of the day.

"Shaun's never been in a position where he does the perfect run and doesn't win," Pearce says. "That was the first time. Now I know I can beat him. And he knows it too." So does the rest of the snowboard world. As word of Pearce's victory spread, his phone buzzed with congratulatory text messages from around the globe. After all, this was his first win against White in nine major halfpipe contests (they've since gone head-to-head four more times, and White has won them all).

At Winter X a week later, Pearce became the first athlete to compete in three events in the same day. "He was the Michael Phelps of snowboarding," says halfpipe champ Gretchen Bleiler. Pearce finished second in slopestyle and big air and third in superpipe. "Now all that's missing is a first," he says.

At the end of last season, Pearce was crowned TTR world champ, a title awarded to the best snowboarder across all three disciplines at various contests. But due to a glitch in the scoring system, it turned out White was the overall points leader, making him co-world champ. Both riders received the $50,000 award. "No disrespect to Shaun, but what Kevin did last year was harder than the undefeated season," says Liam Griffin, Burton's global events director. "He won so many disciplines, against all the top riders, at so many venues. No one has done anything like that, ever."

Patience isn't a word that typically pops up in conversations about 21-year-olds, but it's used over and over to describe Pearce. It's a virtue he developed growing up as the youngest of four boys, and polished in school while struggling with severe dyslexia, a learning disability he shares with brothers Adam, 24, and Andrew, 27, and with his father, Simon, who grew up in Ireland. Kevin also learned patience watching the glassblowers at his parents' Vermont-based glass-and-pottery company, which bears his father's name. The artists there sit with Yogi-like stillness for hours as they turn molten blobs into intricate works of art. Patience is also the most important lesson Kevin has learned from his 23-year-old brother, David, who was born with Down syndrome. "I've been lucky to grow up with David," he says. "He's given me an education I wish every kid could have."

Back in the barn in late October, Kevin and his brothers are watching the Celtics kick off the season against the Cavs. Green-and-white banners, hung there during the boys' childhood, are another testament to the household's patience—the Pearces waited a long time for Boston to win another championship. Kevin owns a Paul Pierce jersey, which he wore to every home game of last season's NBA Finals. "They finally did it," he says, too young to remember the last C's triumph, in 1986, the year before he was born.

The patience needed to endure with the Celts has also marked Pearce's rise in snowboarding. It's why he is able to walk away from a contest with a silver medal around his neck and immediately let go to start looking toward the next event. He's also able to do this after losing at Monopoly or in a round of darts. "But don't get me wrong," he says. "I don't go to contests to take second."

This season, Pearce isn't interested in sharing titles with anyone. "It'll be interesting, now that Danny's healthy and Mason and Scotty are riding so well too," he says. "We push each other more and more every day." White might not have a crew of close friends to motivate him, but he loves a challenge. "I probably should thank him," White says of Pearce. "Because when I lose, it's such a great motivator. Sometimes you need to take a couple of steps back to go forward even more."

That was the case after he lost in Laax; White went on to win Winter X and the U.S. Open, the most prestigious halfpipe titles in the sport, aside from the Olympics.

"I have two goals this year," Pearce says. "Win the U.S. Open. Win the X Games." Headed into the first of those contests, Winter X—which begins Jan. 22 in Aspen—he has confidence he's never had before. He knows that if he lands his run, nails those back-to-back 10s, he can beat anyone. Thanks to the rise of Pearce and his FRENDS, for the first time since 2005 White won't arrive in Aspen as the odds-on favorite. "I think if I can keep stepping up and keep beating Shaun, it would be fun to have a real rivalry in our sport," Pearce says.

Best of all, no matter how Pearce finishes, a group of guys will be waiting at the bottom of the halfpipe, ready with hugs all around.