On Pearce’s figurative chart, the panel on the far right, the one representing the pinnacle of his evolution, is still blank. When it’s done, it will show him standing on a snowboard. No halfpipes, no contests, no groundbreaking flips. Just strap into his board and take an easy cruise with some friends, the way he used to do when he first started.
“Soon,” the doctors tell him. But only then will the never-ending journey will be complete.
“The contests are cool and all,” Pearce, 24, said, “but now I almost feel like [the equivalent of] winning the contest for me is to get back on that board.”
His sense of time is one of the things that was robbed from Pearce after the accident, but he’s fully aware of the anniversary that approaches at the end of this month: On Dec. 31, 2009, in Park City, Utah, he struck his head on the side of the halfpipe while attempting a difficult trick called a double cork. Almost nothing about his life has been the same since.
At the time, Pearce was one of the top snowboarders in the country — a four-time Winter X Games medalist, a leading medal contender at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Instead, Pearce was still in the hospital when the Olympics came around, the victim of a traumatic brain injury that has dictated almost every aspect of his life since.
“I’ve pretty much hurt every other part of my body, and it’s all doing fine. I’ve broken plenty of bones — and they all come back,” he said. “But the brain comes back in a whole different way.”
Pearce was in Washington on Thursday to accept a Victory Award at a gala ceremony hosted by the National Rehabilitation Hospital, in recognition of his courage in overcoming his injury and his advocacy for brain-injury awareness.
Anyone meeting Pearce for the first time would never suspect the trauma he had been through. He looks and sounds like any 24-year-old from the snowboarding scene: sporting a mop of hair, a flannel shirt, utility pants and sneakers, and dropping the occasional “gnarly” and “mellow” into his unrushed but hardly slow speech.
“Have I changed much, Danielle?” he asked his publicist, Danielle Burch, who had joined him on the trip.
“You’re the same Kev as always,” Burch answered. “Maybe a little more lovey-dovey.”
At that, Pearce howled in laughter.
“I think that’s where I’m lucky, in that I’m the same person,” he said. “I feel like some people change after something like this. I really come across as the same person. I’m so lucky there. . . . Unless you hung out with me a lot [previously], you wouldn’t notice the issues. If you just have a conversation with me, you’d think I was totally fine.”