Snowboarder Kevin Pearce was a rising star when, in December 2009, he suffered a traumatic brain injury while trying to pull a difficult trick called the cab double cork. Pearce was lucky to be alive, and some people thought he would never ride a snowboard again. But he persevered, and only eight months after his accident was back on a board. He quickly realized he was not recovered enough to be as good as he was, and in 2011 he announced he would never ride competitively again. At 24 years old, his professional snowboarding career was over -- but his life was just beginning. He became a passionate and devoted advocate for head injury awareness and brain health. And his story of recovery has inspired millions of kids and adults around the world.
On Tuesday, the organization Stoked will recognize Pearce with the Stoked Achievement Award at its sixth annual Stoked Awards dinner in New York. The award celebrates resilience, success, and using action sports culture to help under-served kids. Past winners have included Tony Hawk and Paul Rodriguez.
Last week, Pearce talked with Sports Illustrated Kids about receiving the award, how his recovery has been going, and going to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
What does receiving the Stoked Achievement Award mean to you and the work that you do?
It really means a lot, just because I’m all about helping people now. There are people who aren’t in a good situation or don’t have what they need, whether it’s with their brain or whatever, to get out on the mountain. And that’s what they’re all about with Stoked, getting people out on the mountain. So it’s cool it’s in line with my future and what I’m all about and getting an award from them is pretty special.
What do you hope underserved kids take from your story about getting out on the mountain and doing these action sports that can sometimes be a little out of reach?
I hope I can share with these kids and just, you know, with everyone, that if you are fortunate enough and you do get out to the mountain and something happens, whatever you’re doing in life, if you’re faced with a situation, no matter how bad it is or how bad you’re feeling about it, if you do the right things and put the right work in, ultimately you love your brain and you love what you’re doing, you can overcome it and you can come back and you can live a happy, full, successful life.
Do you ever miss competing?
Yeah, you know, I do. I do miss that side of things. It’s hard not to do that anymore, and it’s obviously what I love the most and what I was most passionate about and what I had the most fun doing. So losing that is definitely very difficult for me. But I feel like I’ve done pretty well with it and I realize I still have a lot of other, amazing things I can do with my life to move on past that and kind of keep moving forward and not be so sad and instead be so happy that I’m still in such a great position now.
Are you able to go out on a board, not to do tricks or anything but just to tool around on the mountain?
Yeah, I actually have a trip planned for the month of December to go up to Canada and just ride in the powder, you know, the backcountry -- not the jumps, not the park, and not the pipe. Not that stuff, and more just enjoying being in the mountains and riding the deep, deep snow, and that’s kind of what I’m doing now.
What’s it like for you to just do that?
It’s the best feeling ever. It’s just this complete feeling of freedom in the ability to just go out and be able to do whatever I want. Not have people telling me what to do. Me just being able to go out and express myself, and it’s the most fun way that I could ever do it. I have so much fun doing that stuff, and that’s really what I feel like my future holds is, that’s a big piece of it, me being out there along with helping and teaching other people how they can heal and how they can get better and just also have my fun. It’s very healing for me to be up in the mountains and in the backcountry and away from all this.
What about being out there is so good for your healing process?
It just allows me to get away. When you’re up in the mountains and out doing that stuff, there are no worries. There’s nothing on your mind except the snow and the powder and the snowboard. And not having to worry about all the things life entails and just be able to have your mind be free for a while is just so, so amazing. It’s so important.
Right now, a lot of athletes are out there competing for a spot on the Olympic team. What do you think about during this time? You were close to reaching the Games yourself before your accident.
I know so well the position and where these guys’ heads are at and how they’re feeling right now. And I love that feeling. It’s pretty intense. And I can tell you, straight up, those guys are scared right now. They’re not on the team yet and they’re going to have to go out there and make the team and do well in these competitions and it’s scary and the stakes are high. But that’s what we love as competitive snowboarders is that pressure and that feeling of having to step up and throw down. That’s what’s so, so fun about it.
I read you’re going to carry the torch in Sochi. Is that right?
Yeah, so, that’s what I’ve been told as well. I don’t really have any details on it or know what’s happening except that I’m going to get to roll over to Russia and carry ‘em in for the Opening Ceremony. So that’s going to be a pretty amazing experience.
Beyond it being a really cool experience, what would it mean for you as an athlete to be part of that ceremony?
That’s what I had worked so hard to get to, and ultimately that’s where I wanted to be was the Olympics. That’s what I was training so hard for and putting so much work in for was to get to those Olympics. And now, obviously, it’s going to be a little bit different how I’m going to the Olympics. But ultimately I’m going to be there and I’ll get to experience it in a whole new way and it’s just going to be awesome to go over there and get to be a part of it.
What advice would you give to kids who want to get out on a snowboard and do it safely but have fun at the same time?
The advice I would give would be just to make sure you’re smart. Being smart is the hardest and most important thing to do on a board. And make sure you’re doing tricks the that are within your ability. And make sure you put a helmet on. And just make sure that you’re out there and you’re having fun and just like riding within your limits and not trying stuff that’s too hard for you and doing it just because you’re buddies are doing it.
And how about for kids who are maybe already snowboarding but they had an injury and they’re afraid to get back on a board or they’re dealing with an injury -- what advice would you give them?
Again, to be smart. If you are going to get back on a board, make sure you get out there when you’re recovered and you’re healed and you’re ready to get back on the board and you don’t get back to it too soon. But when you do get back to it you do the little things. LIke I said, you put a helmet on and you’re safe out there and you’re riding within your limits. I think it’s just so important for these kids that do get back to it after an injury.
What are the things kids should think about or ask adults to know that they’re ready to be back out there and not do it too soon?
I think that’s for the doctors to tell them when they’re brains are healed. It’s much easier to tell when your wrist is back together or your ankle’s not broken anymore. But it’s hard with your brain. It’s hard to know when you’re brain is healed enough and you’re ready to be back out on a board. But ultimately that’s the doctor to say that stuff. So listen to people who know more than you, I think, is so important.
For more information on the Stoked Awards, visit stoked.org/stokedawards.
Photos courtesy Adam Moran