Danny Davis learns to downshift

Illustration by Sam Green

This story appears in the Feb. 7 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

The 22-foot-tall walls of the Breckenridge, Colo., superpipe never looked so sinister -- or so inviting. As Danny Davis slides his snowboard to a stop at the top, the wind whips his face on a gray December morning. All around him, his buddies flip and spin through a practice session ahead of the weekend's Winter Dew Tour contest. His mouth waters as he thinks about dropping in, maybe knocking the dust off his front-side double cork, at the site of an event he won a year ago. Sure feels good to be back, he thinks.

It's been 11 months since the 22-year- old last dropped into a halfpipe. Back then he was the only rider to sully Shaun White's near-perfect Olympic season, beating him at a January Grand Prix event in Mammoth, Calif., with a performance many call the greatest halfpipe run of all time. Less than two weeks later, Davis won again at Snowbasin, in Utah. He was a lock for the Vancouver Games.

Then, just like that, he wasn't. Celebrating at Snowbasin, he drank too much before jumping on an ATV. He doesn't remember crashing, only waking up in the ICU at a Salt Lake hospital with a broken L3 vertebra and a shattered pelvis, his season over and his Olympic dreams dashed. "Everything I'd worked for was gone," Davis says.

So instead of wowing crowds, he rehabbed in isolation. He relearned how to walk and ride a skateboard and finally, in November, to snowboard. But the real healing took place between his ears. "I was off my board for so long, I started to lose my sense of self," Davis says. He wondered if he'd ever be the world-class rider he once was, and, if he did compete again, if his no-holds-barred approach to riding, and life, was worth the risk. "Before the accident, I didn't worry about how many beers I drank or if a jump was safe," he says. "Now I think about the consequences."

There was guilt too. Two weeks before Davis' accident, his friend, Kevin Pearce -- also considered an Olympic sure thing -- suffered a traumatic brain injury during a training session in Park City. "Kevin got hurt pushing his limits and pushing our sport," Davis says. "I got hurt pushing the level of my stupidity."

Now, as Davis drops into the Breckenridge pipe, Pearce stands at the bottom. But as the comeback kid charges at the first wall, he suddenly checks his enthusiasm. Although he wants to compete again, he knows his body isn't yet ready. So he rises just a few feet above the pipe, then cruises through the rest of the run. At the bottom, he's swallowed in high fives and hugs.

Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.