Injured Kevin Pearce Still Has Long, Arduous Road to Recovery
On December 31, Pearce was working out in the giant Superpipe at Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR), the same pipe used for the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. He was training for the final selection event for the Olympics, the Grand Prix coming up on January 22-23. The U.S. Olympic snowboard team will be announced at the awards ceremony after the competition. But the 22-year-old Pearce, one of the very few riders to defeat Shaun White, won't be there. Pearce misjudged his air while training and hit his temple on the knife-sharp icy edge of the pipe as he finished a trick. He hit hard. It severely damaged his brain. Kevin lay at the bottom of the pipe, convulsing, while other riders screamed for help.
Pearce isn't the first. Luke Mitrani was just 13, the youngest rider ever on the U.S. snowboard team, when he missed a hit in this same pipe during a competition and fell, sliding down the ice wall, lying at the bottom like a crumpled rag doll. But after a few long, silent minutes, Mitrani walked away. It will be a while before Pearce walks at all.
He was quickly life-flighted to the University of Utah Hospital, where he was put on a respirator and his skull was surgically opened to let out the fluid that was pressing on his brain. Because he's an elite athlete in top shape, he lived, and was able to breathe on his own just five days later.
Pearce's injury is eerily similar to that of Mike Aitken, the freestyle BMX rider who was doing a video when he slammed his head into the ground a year and a half ago, just one month after winning the Salt Lake City stop of the Dew Tour. Like Aitken, Kevin was at the top of his game. Aitken is still trying to ride again, trying to regain enough coordination for just one flip, instead of being able to do the winning doubles he once did. And, as much as no one wants to face it, the prognosis for Kevin will be pretty much the same as it was for Mikey. Some parts of traumatic brain injury are predictable.
Pictured is the massive, blue paint-topped wall of Park City Mountain Resort's giant Superpipe, where star snowboarder Kevin Pearce was injured while training for the Grand Prix, an Olympic selection competition.
As awareness slowly returns to Pearce, he may become aggressive, fighting to get out of bed, tearing out the tubes that feed him and drain his wastes. As his consciousness rises to the surface, he will probably be angry at first -- which is a sign of recovery. In fact, the speed of his recovery may cause those who are close to him to hope that he will keep recovering, that soon he will be back to being the old Kevin.
But as anyone familiar with traumatic brain injury knows, Pearce's fight to recover is just beginning. After a few months, he may seem normal to casual acquaintances, but those close to him will know that he has little short-term memory, that he may at times seem bewildered, that there will be periods of progress and then a painful period of regression. In Pearce's case, the situation is even more serious, because he fell three weeks ago in an earlier Grand Prix and got a concussion. That earlier wallop increases the damage done to his brain by this injury. When an athlete suffers a concussion, most doctors will prescribe at least several weeks of rest.
Kevin's parents, Pia and Simon Pearce, have been at his bedside constantly. They say they've been amazed at the outpouring of love from fans, at the efforts of the medical staff at the hospital. They've started a Facebook page where friends and fans can post their good wishes for Kevin. And they will probably cry when the Olympic snowboard team is announced a few weeks from now, while their son, if he is lucky, is maybe taking a few hesitant steps on his own.
When the team is announced, Kevin should have been there. He was the one to whom Shaun White would have eventually handed his champion's torch. Kevin was on his way to being the best in the world, crowned with Olympic glory. But in sports, as the coach said in Downhill Racer, there is no justice. And Kevin Pearce, now lying in a hospital bed, half-conscious and with bandages around his head, is proof.