For the past 23 months, Kevin Pearce’s life has been like one of those sixth-grade evolutionary charts, the one that starts with the ape on the left side and gradually progresses into the human on the right. He started out, after the accident, flat on his back. Eventually, he was able to sit up. Then he was able to stand on his feet, then walk, then run. Unlike the ape-to-human evolution, Pearce’s didn’t take several ages to complete. It only felt that way.
“It just feels like the never-ending journey,” he said.
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.”
But he’s not totally fine, of course. His vision is still poor, although the surgery he had on his right eye a month ago has improved it greatly. The strong medicine he takes to prevent seizures makes him drowsy and necessitates afternoon naps most days. His short-term memory is sometimes faulty. And his sense of balance is still coming back. He doesn’t have to go through eight hours of rehab a day — eye exercises, physical therapy and cognitive drills — like he did in the months just after the accident. But he still does plenty.
Where Pearce is strongest in his battle against the injury is in his emotional state. When he speaks of his situation, there is not a trace of self-pity — only acknowledgment, and almost a boyish sense of wonder at the sudden lack of long-term direction in his life.
“I’m not like scared of saying that I’m brain-injured and I’ll always be brain-injured, and that’s just how it is,” he said. “. . . I’m trying to figure out my life pretty much. It’s pretty crazy. It was all kind of heading in this one direction, and everything was going so well. I was at the top of snowboarding. I was hanging with all my buddies. We were just living the best life, just living it up, and then it just kind of turned pretty quickly to the exact opposite of that.”
Pearce thinks about the future, of course. Just not very often and not very hard. Wisely, he isn’t looking too far ahead. He and some friends are gathering in Colorado this weekend to start shooting a pilot for a reality-TV show — about snowboarders, naturally — that they hope to get picked up. After spending seven months living with his parents in Vermont, he was able to move back into his own place in Southern California. He has dabbled in television commentary for snowboarding competitions, but he’s not ready to think about a career, or even a steady job.
“I’m not really in position to have a nine-to-five right now,” he said.
Whatever the future holds, it will not include competitive snowboarding.
“What I’ve heard from everybody is that if I hit my head again, it’s just game over. I’m done for. . . . And I don’t want to go through this again. It’s been such a struggle on me and such a struggle on my family, and such a burden for so many people to deal with. I don’t want to put that on them again.”
For now, it isn’t so bad being 24 years old, with few responsibilities outside of rehab, with plenty of friends and family to lean on, and with some money coming in from the several sponsors who stuck with him after the accident.
“The future is going to be mellow, and it’s a bummer that it has to be so mellow,” he said. “But I’m still young, and I’ve still got my whole life ahead of me. I’m not stressing it too hard yet.”