Home at last

Kevin Pearce has cool glasses -- wood grain Oakley Koston Frogskins, to be exact. He offers to let me try them on; they're a trip, he jokes. The right lens is so much thicker than the left it's the optical equivalent of looking through 3-D glasses.

"It has gotten a lot better," Pearce says about his vision. "Although it's still not perfect, it does feel a lot closer, and I think it's just a matter of time until I can see without glasses."

Back at home with his family in Norwich, Vt., Pearce shows a robust sense of optimism, and a sense of humor that allows him to joke about his improving, albeit still challenging condition. Seated in the converted barn adjacent to where Pearce and his three brothers grew up, with Burton snowboards from Performer-vintage to the latest EST-equipped tech mounted to the walls, the former Olympic contender talked openly and candidly about finally being on home turf after five months in the hospital following his brain injury sustained in halfpipe training Dec. 31. Pearce described that period as "brutal," particularly since the type of brain trauma he sustained elongated his sense of time.

"There's really just no place better to come back to," he says, and on June 5, his hometown returned the sentiment, throwing him an "official" homecoming party.

What got him through the lengthy hospital stay was the support of his family and a huge fan outpouring, which includes a 50,000-plus Facebook following, Pearce says. "This is very unique and very special to get this kind of support," he says. "Having my family there the whole time was so amazing. I can't imagine being in the hospital by myself."

With all the progress he has made, from learning how to walk again to speaking and getting up and moving around on his own, he's living with the specter of the accident itself -- something he still can't remember. "I have no memory from when the accident happened to a month after it. Nothing comes back to me at all. It's so weird to go through a month of life and not have any recollection of any of it."

What he does remember is seeing the Olympics on TV, an event where he arguably had one of the better chances of vying with Shaun White for gold. Now, he's hoping to put that behind him, and focus on "trying to move forward; move on to the next thing."

As for comments that halfpipe snowboarding is becoming too dangerous, Pearce dismissed the criticism, maintaining that he is excited at the pace of progression, and having been a part of taking the new tricks to competition. For other riders asking what to do to stay safe, Pearce says it's a matter of protecting what matters most.

"Wear a helmet. Otherwise, I would not be here, and from what all the doctors say, I would have died. If you want to try tricks this dangerous, then obviously you need to wear a helmet."

And Pearce's own riding future? While a full return to competition is too far off to be certain, he says the prognosis is a full year for the brain to heal, and then he hopes to make turns again.

When asked what he wants now, Pearce takes a breath and pauses. "If I was paralyzed, blind or couldn't talk, then I'd say I'd want that back. The fact that I can walk around and do everything that I was able to do before the accident -- I don't want anything new. It hasn't been that long. I'm so lucky to be in the shape I'm in."

But for an athlete who just months ago represented the peak of his sport's promise, even a return to "normal activity" must have its own caveats. At the end of the interview, Pearce gets an invitation on his iPhone to play an afternoon round of golf -- but more rehab is on the schedule. As he walks back into his parents' house, his family says the negotiations are just starting. Pia, Pearce's mother, says he jokingly called her a "prison warden" that morning.

While the next phase of recovery will no doubt be trying and lengthy, Pearce has made significant strides by being released from hospital care and returning home. And on a sunny and warm summer day in Vermont, it's plain to see that he is in the best place possible, and getting better quicker than anyone expected. With the help of his family to remind him that each incremental step is huge progress, Pearce is taking aim at making the next dream come true -- going snowboarding again.