During Thanksgiving dinner at his home in Vermont two years ago, champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce, 27, finally told his family that he realized that the brain injury he had suffered in a crash on the slopes three years earlier had changed him forever.
He looked at his brother David, 30, who has Down syndrome, and told him that he accepted the limitations he now faced. His days of X Games glory were over. Their mother Pia turned to David and asked: Would Kevin’s acceptance of his traumatic brain injury help David accept his Down syndrome? David’s eyes welled with tears as the other five family members sat silently. It was a long moment. “It’s hard,” David said finally. “But I will try.”
That scene is from the HBO documentary “The Crash Reel,” the story of the rise and literal fall of Kevin Pearce’s snowboarding career and how the Pearces have coped with disability that has affected just about every family member. Beside Kevin’s brain injury and David’s Down syndrome, the father, Simon, who is an internationally known glass blower, and three of the four children have dyslexia.
On Feb. 8, Whole Children, the Hadley-based organization that provides social programs for children, especially those with special needs, will host a screening of the film and an appearance by Kevin Pearce at the conference center at Baystate Health Whitney Avenue in Holyoke. Kevin will talk about brain trauma and answer questions. Pia and David are expected as well. Dr. Barry Rodstein, of Baystate, will also speak about brain injury.
“We want to share this story with the community because it is such a positive message about resilience and disability and the power of family,” said Valle Dwight, communications and development manager at Whole Children. “That’s a message that aligns to our mission — which is focusing on strengths, overcoming adversity, and supporting families.”
Dwight and Pia Pearce have known each for six years, ever since Pearce contacted Dwight looking for an organization that could assist David. The Pearces were living in southern Vermont at the time.
“There’s a lot of resource sharing in the disability community,” Dwight said.
And now, with the organization looking for a way to mark its 10th anniversary, several people suggested showing the film, she said.
“The movie is an amazing glimpse of a family dealing with disabilities on multiple levels.”
That family, said Kevin Pearce in a telephone interview, “has done everything. And continues to do so.”
Different parenting style
Simon and Pia Pearce raised their four boys differently than other parents he knew, Kevin said. “Our family didn’t do it the way others did.”
Their father, an acclaimed artist, was so severely dyslexic, that he didn’t finish high school, Kevin said. He hated school his whole life, and would continually ask whether he had to go back, Kevin said. When school officials expelled him, his mother kept that rejection from him. She finally simply told him, no, he didn’t have to go anymore.
“Our dad grew up in a family that really believed in children’s ability,” Adam Pearce, 32, said in an interview with the Gazette. “Our parents likewise gave us a lot of freedom, but also the responsibility not to mess up.”
Success seemed to grow from that approach.
The Pearce boys grew up in Hartland, Vermont, just south of Hanover, New Hampshire. They were always outside, not inside playing video games, according to Kevin
The family was friends with snowboard pioneer Jake Burton and, early on, the children knew Shaun White, who today is the best-known snowboarder in the world.
Adam was the first to snowboard competitively, and Kevin soon followed in his footsteps. The two attended the Stratton Mountain School, in South Londonderry, Vermont before enrolling at the Okemo Mountain School in Ludlow, Vermont.
But in order to become great snowboarders, Adam said, they had to head out west, where the snow conditions are more dependable.
When he was 18 years old, Adam moved to Mammoth, California. Two years later, when he was 15, Kevin convinced his parents to let him go, too. There he snowboarded all winter long, taking classes online during the summer to finish his high school education.
Shaun White won the gold medal for the men’s halfpipe in the 2006 winter Olympics in Turino, Italy, and was favored to do so again at the 2010 games in Vancouver, British Columbia. But in the years leading up to Vancouver, Kevin Pearce beat Shaun White in several snowboard competitions throughout the world. A rivalry ensued.
“Both Kevin and Shaun are super-competitive,” Adam said.
The rivalry, however, was short-lived.
In December 2009, while training for the Olympics in the half pipe at Park City, Utah, Kevin crashed while trying to land the double cork maneuver he had been working on for several months. He suffered a severe concussion and was in a coma for several days. He remained in intensive care in the University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City for almost a month before being transferred to the Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado.
His competitive days were over, doctors said. Another blow to his head could prove fatal.
Circling the wagons
His family rallied around him. They had supported him on his way to becoming one of the best snowboarders in the world, now they had to help him live the rest of his life with an injured brain.
Adam quit his job and spent that first year caring for him.
“I realized Kevin would need someone,” Adam said, “but I didn’t know just what he would need. I knew injuries were a part of the game, but not brain injuries. Back then, we didn’t know what brain injuries were.”
Traumatic brain injuries can cause a wide array of social, emotional, and physical disabilities. One of Kevin’s biggest struggles, despite two surgeries and other medical procedures, has been with his eyes — getting the visual information to his brain. He has trouble coordinating his eyes, and has experienced double vision.
The film shows Kevin going through round after round of physical therapy to help with his hand-eye coordination, such as rolling a ball at bowling pins, or covering one eye while pointing to a circle inside a second circle. When the therapy became a chore, Adam would appeal to his brother’s unending competitive spirit: How many times could he put the ball in the basketball hoop in a certain amount of time?
“The main thing I did to help out was keep the positive energy flowing,” Adam said “Because I also knew how competitive Kevin is, I spent a lot of time turning boring rehab into competitive games.”
“One day we decided to try and make everyone we came into contact with smile,” Adam continued. “That was a fun day.”
Both Adam and Kevin said that David’s Down syndrome made a huge difference in helping their family deal with Kevin’s injury, especially during that first year of recovery.
The Pearce boys learned to accept people’s limitations and strengths early on, they said. It was incorporated into their family culture.
“It’s about acceptance for who David is, and what he can do,” Adam said. “We understood that growing up, without even realizing it.”
In the film, Pia says that she had her doubts at first: “After David was born the midwife said, ‘We need to tell you that your baby has Down syndrome,’ and I just didn’t know if I could do it.”
But she and her husband, Simon, worked on getting his strengths to shine, too.
They entered him in the Special Olympics, where he competed and medaled as both a skier and a swimmer.
“The incredible thing about David is you have to put out an enormous amount of energy,” Simon said in “The Crash Reel.” “We always said it was like he was equal to five children. But you always got back exactly what you put out. I wouldn’t have David any other way than the way he is.”
Coming to grips
Kevin’s recovery was marked by a series of small successes: opening his eyes for the first time after the accident, then talking, then walking, going through occupational therapy, and sorting through his medications with a friend at home in California — a house he did not remember buying before his accident.
But the challenge of coming to terms with his disability proves to be the biggest hurdle. His eyesight, balance and memory will always be affected.
In another scene from the film, Pia sits with Kevin as he tells his doctor that he appreciates the help and support his family and the medical specialists have given him, but he wants to get away from it all and go back to snowboarding and living his life like he did before. His doctor points to Pia, who is fighting to hold back tears, and suggests to Kevin that he remember all that his family has been through in the moments when he’s having a difficult time making a good decision.
“A brain injury is not like a bone that just heals, and then you’re on your way,” Adam said. “This was really frustrating for Kevin, and a big reason why he, like so many recovering from a brain injury, need support from others. Brain trauma survivors have a hard time knowing what they can do, and what they can’t.”
But eventually, Kevin figured it out before that momentous Thanksgiving dinner.
“I don’t think Kevin would ever say he’s officially retired,” Adam said. “He’s just slowed down a bit.”
“I still ride with friends,” Kevin said, “and I’ll always be a snowboarder, but that’s not my main focus anymore.”
In 2014, Kevin and Adam founded the LoveYourBrain Foundation, an organization working to improve the quality of life for those affected by brain injury.
Most aid organizations, like the United States Brain Injury Alliance and the Brain Injury Association of America, focus on impatient recovery, Adam said. LoveYourBrain looks at the long term, life-long recovery process.
The organization recently partnered with researchers at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire to study how yoga and meditation can help. The organization is developing an educational program based on those findings.
“Kevin started doing yoga two years ago,” Adam said. “It’s really helped with his balance, and his focus.”
“It’s meditative and calming,” Kevin said. “Like healing for your brain.”
Though five years removed from his crash, Kevin is still having problems with his eyesight. He continues to see eye specialists, and will likely continue to do so for some time.
“The healing never ends,” he said.
But the glimpse of that healing that “The Crash Reel” provides has broader implications, as Dwight sees it.
“The story of Kevin’s recovery ends up going very deep into other realms, passion, disability, loss, acceptance, fear. Everyone will be able to relate to the story on some level, and in the process will probably learn something they weren’t expecting,” she said. “Everyone will see how very heart-wrenching such a recovery can be, and will see the role that a supportive family plays.”
The showing of “The Crash Reel” at Baystate Health, 361 Whitney Avenue, Holyoke, Feb. 8, is free, but attendees must register at http://www.wholechildren.org or by calling 585-8010.
(Originally appeared in the Hampshire Gazette.)